The New Jersey Devils have had some of the worst luck in the NHL lately.
They’ve already lost Martin Brodeur to the St. Louis Blues — at least, for now. When he announced that he had no plans of re-signing with the Devils in the off-season, the league’s most illustrious netminder spent nearly half a season without a team before getting signed to a PTO by the Blues to compensate for an injury to starter Brian Elliott. Brodeur then played in a handful of games, announced his retirement, and shocked Devils fans by joining the Blues’ front office.
They’ve also lost winger Zach Parise, who now serves as the alternate captain for the surging Minnesota Wild.
Not everything has been bad for the Devils, of course. The former powerhouse is proof that hard work can overcome just about anything, as veterans Scott Gomez and Jordin Tootoo are having fairly impressive comeback years with the Jersey team. Netminder Cory Schneider is also proving to be the closest thing the Devils could have found to an immediate replacement for Martin Brodeur; it’s absurd to think that the team would be able to find a starter with a fraction of the talent Brodeur brought to the table throughout the nineties and into the decade beyond, but Schnieder is nothing short of a league-leading franchise goalie. Behind a team with no shot at the playoffs, he’s still managed to keep his numbers up — and the workload he’s been given would test even the best netminders, but he’s taken it all in stride.
Then, there’s Ilya Kovalchuk.
Few Devils fans want to hear his name — although he was extremely successful with the franchise, the aftereffects of his presence in Newark have been far from pleasant. His contract negotiations were painful to the upteenth degree, then the contract he did sign violated league cap regulations. Part of the three million dollar fine issued to the Devils was pardoned by the NHL, but they still coughed up a nice chunk of change to the league — and although they were awarded back their previously revoked first round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the thirtieth overall pick isn’t exactly what the struggling Devils were hoping for.
Rumors popped up last season that Kovalchuk was eyeing a return to the NHL, although those were stamped out fairly quickly — but the new rumor puts his return three seasons from now, giving just enough time for the league to work itself into a frenzy over the possible return.
Per league regulation, Kovalchuk’s voluntary retirement from the NHL — which had him walking away from $77 million dollars of his contract with New Jersey in order to ‘be with his family’ back in Russia — means that any potential return he makes would have to be approved by the league first. Should all thirty general managers (or, at that point, potentially more) choose to approve his return in 2017 — once his contract with SKA St. Petersburg has expired — he will be allowed to re-enter the NHL as a UFA; should he fail to meet the league’s full approval, a one-year hiatus from professional hockey will be required before he can offer himself up on the free agent market.
There are a number of flaws with assuming that Kovalchuk will make a return.
First, there’s the hesitancy he displayed to return to North America after the 2012 NHL lockout — he and Pavel Datsyuk remained in Russia long enough to play in the KHL All Stars game before reporting back to their NHL clubs, then Kovalchuk returned to Russia the following season. He had initially claimed his move back overseas was to be closer to his family — assuming that was the case, seeing a re-entry to North American hockey once he’s closer to forty than thirty bucks all logic.
There’s also the herniated disc he played through in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
While he’s not the first player to deal with back issues — and he wouldn’t be the first to make a full recovery and continue playing long after the injury has healed — his projected return to the NHL puts him making an appearance in either 2017 or 2018, depending on whether he receives league approval for re-entry. At that point, the winger will be thirty-five — and although there’s little doubt he’ll still be a strong contributor, the question remains whether a team is willing to risk the potential animosity they’d receive as push-back for allowing his return, considering his age and injury history. He’s proven he’ll depart for Russia mid-contract before — and while a Dominik Hasek-like return to the NHL isn’t unprecedented, it’s doubtful he’ll make the kind of money in America he once would have.
Regardless of how the situation is handled three years down the road, though, the point is moot now — he’s still mid-contract with St. Petersburgh.