O Il’ya Net (Oh Ilya No)!

Well that was interesting.  I began yesterday working on a post covering the Devils limited, but useful draft and free agent decisions, to be followed with a recap of free agency across the league (that has thus far been tabled, I’ll probably post it after the rest of the major FAs are signed).  There was a lot to break down, yet I never expected to see what happened around 4:00 PM.  Twitter exploded (at least Devils fans’ Twitter did), with news that 30 year old superstar winger, Ilya Kovalchuk was announcing his retirement from the NHL after 11 years, 816 games, 417 goals, and 816 points.

Naturally, everyone thought it was some kind of lie or mistake, he couldn’t really be “retiring.”  Having connections in sports media can have its benefits from time to time, as I was allowed to listen to Devils GM Lou Lamoriello as he conducted a conference call with reporters shortly after the initial announcement.  He stressed that, “this was not a decision by the New Jersey Devils,” even though it most certainly was (more on that in a minute), and “we always strive to put the best possible team on the ice.”  He went on to address that while he had discussions with Kovalchuk dating back to last season’s lockout, in which Kovy expressed a desire to return to Russia, Lamoriello indicated that he never felt Kovalchuk would actually return, at least not this early in his 15 year $100+ million contract. 

In the summer of 2010 Kovalchuk signed a mega deal at over $100 million to stay in NJ.

In the summer of 2010 Kovalchuk signed a mega deal at over $100 million to stay in NJ.

It’s that number that shows the Devils absolutely were part and parcel of this decision.  As various hockey outlets mentioned, within the parameters of the CBA, the Devils had the option to hold Kovy to the contract and block his “retirement” which allows him to play in the KHL.  If the Devils had blocked it, Kovalchuk could not legally sign with a KHL team per their agreement with the NHL, further the IOC would have barred Kovalchuk from playing in the Sochi games this winter as he would be in void of his NHL deal.  In short, Kovalchuk would have had to suit up for the Devils or likely never play competitive professional hockey again until the contract was up (he’d be 42 years old). 

Clearly the Devils chose to let Kovalchuk sign his voluntary retirement paperwork, which means he’s leaving the next 12 years and $77 million on the table.  In the short term, this is devastating to New Jersey.  It comes one year after the Devils lost star captain Zach Parise to free agency and fresh on the heels of David Clarkson’s departure to Toronto this offseason.  Further, due to realignment, New Jersey enters a newly structured division.  Last season the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Washington Capitals all made the playoffs, add to that the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Philadelphia Flyers who have all improved this offseason.  Along with the Devils, only 3 of those 8 teams are guaranteed a spot with anywhere between 0 and 2 more adding in as wild cards.  Losing the best offensive player on the team is not exactly a good way to enter next season in such a tough decision. 

So…why let him go?  Well, as Jason Brough of ProHockeyTalk.com pointed out, although he’s only 30, Kovalchuk hasn’t played a full season since his first in NJ three years ago.  He scored only 11 goals in 37 games last year, and is clearly no longer the 50 goals a year guy he once was in Atlanta.  Then of course there is the money.  The Devils are a small market team and have been going through ownership struggles over the past two years.  Kovalchuk was willing to walk away from a contract that NJ would have been paying for over the next decade.  Now, by letting him walk, they take a modest cap hit of only $250K a year over the rest of the deal.  To compare, Kovy’s cap hit this season was going to be $6.67 million, and that would INCREASE as the contract progressed.  The financial benefits to the organization are clear.  Then of course there’s the idea that, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to pay a guy so much money to play in a country and league he doesn’t want to.  I agree with this, superstar or not, he’s not worth it if he’s not 100% committed to the team.  There aren’t exactly a lot of success stories surrounding disgruntled $100 million athletes. 

Kovy thinks his family will be happier back in Russia...that and the $20 million per season he's likely to make in the KHL.

Kovy thinks his family will be happier back in Russia…that and the $20 million per season he’s likely to make in the KHL.

But, where do the Devils go from here?  According to CapGeek.com, with Kovy now off the books, they suddenly have around $10.6 million in cap space, and there are some intriguing free agents still available.   First, some of this excess space can be directed to resigning some Restricted FAs, headed by center Adam Henrique.  Also, Mikhail Grabovski is probably the best remaining free agent forward.  Grabo is only 29, a 7 year veteran with 94 goals and 123 points over 367 career games; he’s the best option for a long term deal.  The problem is he’s a Center, and the open spot is on the wing, but using common “draft” logic, he’s the best player on the board.  Future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr is also available.  However, he is the most short-term of solutions, unlikely for more than 1 season.  However, he can play the wing and can fill Kovy’s slot on the power play reasonably well.  He’s 900 years old though, and so his minutes would likely have to be limited across an 82 game season.  Other names include Alexei Ponikarovsky, Damien Brunner, Brenden Morrow, Dustin Penner, and Simon Gagne; not to mention the possibility that Lamoriello can swing a trade.  None of them can bring the kind of production the club loses with Kovalchuk, but they’re all veterans many of whom have won or played for Stanley Cups.  It’ll be interesting to see how the Devils move forward.

Only a year ago Parise and Kovalchuk led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals...now both are wearing different colors.

Only a year ago Parise and Kovalchuk led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals…now both are wearing different colors.

There’s no doubt that Kovalchuk’s decision screws NJ in the short term.  First, many contend that the Devils pursuit of Kovy hurt them in their goal of resigning Parise.  It’s possible, but this isn’t a viewpoint I agree with.  First of all, Minnesota did not offer Parise the most money, Pittsburgh did.  If Kovy making more money than him led to Parise’s move, why not go to Pittsburgh?  Second, Lamoriello stated he offered a 9 figure deal to Parise, who took an 8 figure deal with Minny.  So again, the Devils were prepared to offer more, regardless of the fact that they were also paying Kovalchuk 9 figures.  So while some writers claim that Kovalchuk led to Parise walking, only to turn and walk himself a year later, I’m not buying it.

However, it WOULD have been nice if Kovy made this decision prior to the draft and free agent frenzy.  The argument against it is that FAs may not have come to NJ without Kovalchuk in the fold, and that’s reasonable.  But if he really wanted to do it, he could have told Lou before the draft but the team could have played it close to the chest.  Lamoriello would have been able to make moves to replace him from the start of the offseason rather than now when the top replacements are all off the table now.  That being said, it’s far better that he did now than later.  Brough on ProHockeyTalk mentioned that in just 3 seasons time, if he retired it would have meant that the Devils would have paid out $79 million, and taken an annual hit of $3.7 million for the remaining 7 years, rather than the $250K they’re paying now.  So, thanks for that Ilya. 

Once expected to be the next face of the franchise, Kovalchuk packs his bags for Russia, another in a long line of players to quit on the Devils.

Once expected to be the next face of the franchise, Kovalchuk packs his bags for Russia, another in a long line of players to quit on the Devils.

For me as a Devil fan, this hurts now because it’s hard to see a way for us to be a playoff team next year.  And because we lost our 2014 1st round draft pick in trying to circumvent the old salary cap when we signed Kovalchuk, being in the lottery this year isn’t going to help (although, people don’t call him Loophole Lou for no reason, if anyone can get that pick back after this fiasco, its Lamoriello).  It’s going to be a long year, maybe even two, going forward.  However, the long term gains will ultimately prove very beneficial to the club.  The fact is they were paying Kovalchuk for his previous performances, he was never going to play to the level of a $100 million contract going forward in his career, and at least this gets us out from under that contract without having to buy it out.  Now the ownership has that money in real dollars to settle their debt and bring in more quality players.  Brodeur and Elias are in their 40s, they only have a couple of years left, and the Stanley Cup winning core of NJ from the late nineties-early aughts is done.  By letting Kovalchuk walk, it frees up money to allow this team to rebuild the proper way.  The motto of the Devils Army is, “In Lou We Trust.”  As long as he’s running the show, the Devils will find a way back.  It won’t happen fast, but the short term loss at least provides a road to long term gain going forward.  “In Lou We Trust,” now more than ever.