The biggest story of the NHL off season isn’t a trade, an offer sheet, an unfortunate death or even an absurd signing. It is the retirement of one of the most talented players in the NHL. Ilya Kovalchuk announced he would be leaving the NHL and returning to Russia through the New Jersey Devils website today. His official reason of wanting to be with his family is certainly a key component, but no one, even if they expect to recoup it walks away from the nearly eighty million he was due as Devil over the next few years easily.
The other contributing factors are a bit murkier, but we can certainly narrow down key components, the first of which is how little success such an enormous talent has had in the NHL. With Atlanta he was surrounded by rosters most of the USHL or CHL teams could have handily defeated in a seven game series, possibly in a sweep. The team continually drafted high despite being in a division that was the NHL’s punching bag for almost a generation. Two years ago when he finally got to the Stanley Cup finals after a season in which he should have won the Hart, the Ted Lindsey and gotten votes for the Selke, his hopes of winning the Cup were exsanguinated, largely by his own teammates and a body that had given more than it should be called upon to. Given the well documented financial troubles of the New Jersey Devils, he had to be convinced he was no going to get back to the Finals any time when he had a claim at being a top ten NHL talent.
Recognition is another element. Kovalchuk is good. He’s more than good, he’s the definition of elite. In his career he’s played with exactly one top ten offensively talented center, and he didn’t have Marc Savard for long. In the early years of his career he played with little in the way of NHL talent of any description. In his most recent four seasons he’s played in a very defensive minded system where he played 24-26 minutes a night with large amounts of it shorthanded. He leaves the NHL with two fifty goal season, three forty goal seasons, and four thirty goal seasons. Only once was he a first team All Star, he never won a single Hart trophy or Ted Lindsay, and much of that can be laid at the feet of the Canadian media and their xenophobia. Russian players get as much negative attention from the Canadian media today as Russia itself did from America during the Cold War. If a Russian player does something questionable or negative it will be talked about for years to come, a Canadian or Swede who did the exact same thing might have to suffer through a week of questions and recriminations. He’ll leave the NHL a point per game player, a solid two way player, and probably never even get mentioned for the hall of fame.
NHL stability is another question that has to have pooped into his head a time or two. During his there were two lockouts, one resulting in a whole season being wiped away. The team who drafted him had ownership more interested in pinching pennies and suing each other than in building a viable franchise. The team he was traded too and eventually signed to a long term deal with was bankrupt. The Coyotes were forever unstable. The Islanders are still a question mark. The Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets had issues that threatened their existence. The Thrashers were moved to Winnipeg. All Star and Winter Classic games, a major source of league revenue, were cancelled. And of course players have had to give back money to the league more than once.
The Devils will go on without him, as will the league, neither will be better off without him.