Kovalchuk Departure: Commendable or Cowardly?

Yesterday New Jersey forward Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL at age 30. He will walk away from a monster $100 million contract he signed with $77 million left to be paid out (around $60 million in the next six seasons). The move will irk Devils fans and question fans if their own Russian players will want to ditch the NHL in favor of playing in the KHL.

The Recapture Rule: Per the CBA reached in January 2013, teams receiving a “cap advantage” from long-term contracts (defined as seven years or more) will be penalized in the event the player retires or “defects” from the NHL before the contract expires. A team receives a “cap advantage” when the player’s actual salary exceeds his cap hit in a given year. Please note, contracts that fall under the “over-35” rule do not qualify for cap benefit recapture, the NHL has confirmed. In these cases, the team is charged with the player’s full cap hit. From Capgeek.com

The KHL has been a thorn in the NHL’s side ever since the former Russian Superleague morphed into the KHL in 2008. And what puts the NHL at a disadvantage is no other major North American sport has a competitor league that is good enough to entice players from leaving the U.S. for Europe or elsewhere. The NFL hasn’t had a relevant competitor since the USFL in the 1980’s yet you didn’t see players in their prime jumping ship. No one leaves the NBA for a league in Europe. Even with baseball in Japan, can you name a player who decided to leave Major League Baseball for a league in Japan or in the Caribbean? This move could start an avalanche for big named players leaving for bigger contracts and more tax breaks in Russia.

Who is there to blame? Who knows. The lockout sure didn’t help, as many players temporary played there before the NHL resumed play there in January. It could be possible it was during that time Kovalchuk became homesick and seriously thought more about returning home. We’ve been down this road before, as the Nashville Predators know all too well about a Russian player leaving them for the KHL (Alexander Radulov).

Is the decision Kovy made commendable or cowardly? Some people may sympathize with him, considering he’s made it known to the Devils he would like to return to Russia and play there eventually. Others are highly critical of him considering he pretty much pulled a Barry Sanders and caught his teammates, coaches and Devils executives off guard with it. To make matters worse, he decided to retire a week after free agency began. This hurt the Devils because most of the players the team could have considered to replace him are already gone. It will be interesting to see how the Devils move on without one of their star players both on the ice and in the salary cap.

If there’s anything that’s positive coming out of this, is that his contract appears to be voided. Lou Lamoriello confirmed this on a conference call with reporters that Kovalchuk’s contract with the Devils has been voided.

It’s expected Kovalchuk will sign with KHL club SKA Saint Petersburg, for whom he played during the lockout. He will finish with career NHL totals of 417 goals and 399 assists in 816 games.

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