Devils

Hartnett: Kovalchuk Gives Devils And Fans The Horns Through Faux Retirement

Don't Feel Bad For The Devils, Feel Bad For Their Fans
Ilya Kovalchuk (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Ilya Kovalchuk (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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‘Devils in the Details’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

In January 2013, the New Jersey Devils had to drag Ilya Kovalchuk kicking and screaming back to the NHL.

“I want to stay in St. Petersburg but I have contractual obligations in the NHL, which will be hard to break,” Kovalchuk told Sport-Express in January.

Six months later, Kovalchuk’s desire to bolt the NHL came to fruition. On Thursday afternoon, the Russian superstar turned his back on the Devils for what he perceives as greener pastures in his homeland, tossing aside a ton of greenbacks for an even larger salary paid out in Russian rubles by oil-rich SKA Saint Petersburg owner Alexander Medvedev.

KOVALCHUK DITCHES THE DEVILS FOR RUSSIAN OIL RICHES

The remainder (12 years, $77 million) of his contract with the Devils has been voided. According to Pavel Lysenkov of SovSport, Kovalchuk will command a salary between $15-20 million per year after taxes once he signs for SKA. A deal could be officially announced by the club on Monday.

Let’s make this clear. It was inevitable that Kovalchuk would eventually return to the KHL. Kovalchuk expressed his desire to leave the Devils throughout the past season to general manager Lou Lamoriello.

“After many conversations with Ilya over the past year on his desire to retire from the National Hockey League, Ilya’s decision became official today,” Lamoriello said in a statement. “On behalf of the entire organization, I wish Ilya and his family all the best in their future endeavors.”

Kovalchuk had this to say through an official Devils statement:

“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia,” Kovalchuk said.  “Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.  The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me.”

C’mon, Ilya. Everyone can see through your disingenuous words and actions. It wasn’t difficult for you to leave New Jersey. You took the rubles and ran.

DEVILS DID NOT STAND IN KOVALCHUK’S WAY

If the Devils really wanted to hold Kovalchuk to his contract, they could have sought the NHL’s assistance and asked the International Ice Hockey Federation to step in on the matter. Had the Devils fought tooth and nail to keep their most talented star, he would be playing at Prudential Center until 2025.

They didn’t. The Devils simply waved the white flag of defeat and did everything besides driving him to Newark Liberty Airport to accommodate his move back to the KHL.

The strange situation turned out to be ideal for all parties involved. Make no mistake, losing a world-class talent in Kovalchuk will undoubtedly hurt the Devils in the short-term in 2013-14. As for their long-term future, the Devils will actually benefit through Kovalchuk’s absence.

Aristotle famously said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That quote certainly applies to the Devils and their philosophies. The Devils broke away from their team-first ethics when they agreed to Kovalchuk’s 15-year, $100 million demands in the summer of 2010. They became too reliant on a single superstar and it showed when Kovalchuk missed nearly a month due to a shoulder injury, and the Devils ultimately fell short of reaching the playoffs.

Lamoriello will be able to re-invest Kovalchuk’s disappearing $6.67 cap hit in a number of ways. Historically, the Devils have usually been a stronger unit without a superstar forward and 20 selfless skaters who fully buy into their blue-collar doctrines. The lone exception was when Kovalchuk caught fire in the 2012 playoffs to lead New Jersey to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals.

They have their long-term goalie solution solved through their lopsided draft day acquisition of Cory Schneider. Lamoriello is a cunning general manager and he’ll have no problem building the Devils back into a winner. It’s just a matter of whether the 2013-14 will be a wash, or if he has another crafty move up his sleeve to push the Devils back into immediate contention.

“It is what it is, and you go forward,” an unshaken Lamoriello said during Thursday’s conference call.

YOU FEEL FOR THE FANS AT TIMES LIKE THESE

No one is shedding a tear for the Devils. They’ll move on.

The Devils didn’t lose very much through Kovalchuk’s decision to walk away aside from having to forfeit their 2014 first-round pick due to the team circumventing the salary cap to sign him in the first place and 12-year annual cap recapture penalties of $250,000. It will be a hurdle in their rebuilding process, although not something impossible to overcome.

My sympathy goes out to Devils fans who invested their hearts in Kovalchuk and spent their hard-earned money on No. 17 jerseys for themselves and their children. I would hate to be in the shoes of a father trying to console a son or daughter who rips their Kovalchuk poster off the wall.

How do you explain to a kid that their favorite player turned down the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup for lure of oil money?

When a player agrees a 15-year contract, it should mean something. It should be something more than a piece of paper that can be ripped into pieces through a faux retirement.

Follow Sean on Twitter — @HartnettHockey.

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