Ilya Kovalchuk didn’t feel like a New Jersey Devil.
He was the antithesis of so many of the franchise’s hallmarks. He was an offensive dynamo on a team known for its defense. He was an acquired asset, rather than the kind of homegrown player the Devils had used as the backbone of their team. He signed for 15 years and $100 million, on a team where the top end guys took less for the betterment of the roster.
Ilya Kovalchuk didn’t want to be a New Jersey Devil.
It was July 2010, and the NHL had never seen an unrestricted free agent go to market with Kovalchuk’s skill, stats and relative youth. The problem for Kovalchuk: Only a handful of teams could afford his demands in a capped NHL; and soon it was only the Devils, who traded for him that February from the Atlanta Thrashers (RIP), the Los Angeles Kings and SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL bidding for his services.
No one else would pay him. He was a Devil by default, and certainly not a Devil for life.
When the Devils signed him to his 15-year, $100-million contract – after that absurd 17-year deal was voided by the NHL – one could see when Kovalchuk would theoretically leave the franchise for the KHL: Either 2018-19 or 2019-20, when his salary tumbled $3 million from the previous year in both seasons.
Little did anyone know that schedule would be sped up dramatically: Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday, leaving $77 million on the table in favor of the bottomless riches of SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League.