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Why Ilya Kovalchuk’s “Retirement” Matters to Hockey As a Whole

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An editorial by Devils writer David Malinowski

If you are a New Jersey Devils fan, the last thirteen months haven’t exactly been kind to you.

In fact, they’ve been pretty awful, and the nail has been hit on its head thanks to “Twitter famous” Devils fan Devin Mattera of Smithtown, NY.

Despite the fact that Devin actually means July 11, 2013, he’s absolutely correct. The New Jersey Devils have now lost approximately 120 goals for thanks to the quick and almost baffling loss of star players who have “bromances” with Martin Brodeur and have the indelible capability to score goals.

Out of all of them, this is probably the biggest blow to the Devils organization. The Devils lost a player who lead the league in scoring in the 2012 playoffs as he put the team on his back (which ironically had a herniated disk) and who has scored more goals than any player, yes, any player in the National Hockey League over the last eleven seasons. He retires with career NHL totals of 417 goals and 399 assists for 816 points with 516 penalty minutes in 816 games. He is also retiring with $77 million guaranteed on the table.

 

Kovalchuk during the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. (Courtesy of Yahoo! Sports)

Statement from Ilya Kovalchuk:
“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia. 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.”

Kovalchuk cost the Devils quite a bit over the years; more than just financials. While the Devils will be arguably better off long term, the immediate future looks pretty bleak for plenty of reasons. For one thing, Kovalchuk cost the team several important pieces. The team literally poured itself dry and risked everything for him. Here’s a quick list of what exactly he cost the Devils franchise:

  • Patrice Cormier and Niclas Bergfors (permission to laugh granted)
  • Johnny Oduya, a defenseman who won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks this season
  • A third round pick in the 2011 draft and $3 million in penalties
  • Two first round picks, one as a result of a cap circumvention penalty on his initial extension. While the 2010 pick was negligible, the 2014 pick by some estimates has the potential to be in the top 10.
  • Potentially Zach Parise and David Clarkson as all of the cap room and limited money resources were both tied up in the Kovalchuk contract which was signed in the summer of 2010

While maybe this will act as a “third time’s a charm” type wake up call to the way the organization conducts itself, it raises a much bigger problem overall. There is an issue with how the league is conducting its player and team relationships. More importantly, there is a very big problem politically between the animosity that still exists between the United States and Russia.

The NHL is arguably the only major-four sports league in the United States to face stiff competition from overseas. However, the NHL is getting a taste of its own medicine. The Kontinental Hockey League, founded in 2008, has several things that the NHL does not have, one of them political backing.

The Russian government has invested a lot of money and time into promoting its premier league that has expanded to now nine countries, acquiring Jokerit from Finland’s SM-Liga premier league. To give you an idea, Finland is losing its equivalent of the Montréal Canadiens to a Russian start-up that is growing faster than WorldComm before its crash that sent the markets into ripples way back in the early 2000s.

The KHL essentially has a 13 hour flight separating its easternmost city, Vladivostok, to its westernmost, Prague. The NHL has only a 5 hour flight by comparison. This means a lot more exposure and a lot more money and attention on the table.

The KHL also has no standard salary cap, meaning every team can throw as much money as possible to have its star players play. On top of that, the KHL is not even done growing.

It’s also slightly corrupt.

The league’s commissioner, Alexander Medvedev, also maintains a large stake in SKA St. Petersberg, the team that Kovalchuk played for during the lockout and will most likely play for after his so called retirement.

I’m very critical of Kovalchuk. This is not a player retiring; this is a player quitting. It is by all means giving up on a commitment in a very shocking move. It’s hard to call selfish, but it’s certainly hard to lay the criticism off of the guy.

He’s going back for more family time.

A man who has rooted his immediate family in suburban New York City with a million dollar estate in Alpine, NJ, who also owns a summer house in Miami, FL is up and leaving out of absolutely nowhere. Could it be his shoulder injury is nagging? Is it possible that he is being politically targeted? Bribed?

Let’s not forget, Sergei Bobrovsky was promised a huge sum of money by the Russian government if he chose to play in the KHL next season. He signed a two year deal in Columbus for a much lower amount of money. Bobrovsky doesn’t even speak English.

When someone offers a player a large some of money paid over an extended period of time, the opportunity to avoid escrow payments (something Kovalchuk made a point of hating), a full valued contract, and the opportunity to get tax cuts as a result of being a country’s heroic and premier player, what do you do?

Sign the guy up and ship him off.

Kovalchuk will be playing for a boatload of money and is slated to become the highest paid player in the world while playing for SKA, some Russian media outlets reporting close to $10-15 million per year USD.

It’s all speculative, and we won’t see the results of this news for quite some time.

So, why does this affect more than just fans of the New Jersey Devils?

Well, plenty of things come into play. This is a legitimate threat to the NHL and the NHLPA going forward. It states that a player can essentially void his contract with his team and leave for an overseas league in an attempt to gain more personal capital. It dilutes the talent level of the NHL now that it doesn’t have the appeal of being the world’s “best” league if some of the world’s best players aren’t playing in it.

Unfortunately for the NHL, some of the world’s best players are Russian. Some of them have also signed contracts with their NHL clubs that have put the team’s finances and cap situations in a bind, one example being Evgeni Malkin’s massive extension that will pay him over $9 million AAV for quite some time.

Alex Ovechkin’s contract is another one. Here is a prototypical situation of a player wanting to leave. Ovechkin has been ripped by the media over the years. He has been nothing but compared to Crosby at every turn, called selfish, “the league’s worst captain,” and with his production suffering as of late (excluding this season), it spells leaving. On top of it, he has been figured out by the league’s defensemen and coaching staff, so he has essentially hit a brick wall.

nhl alex oveckin trade rumors

What does this say about Alexander Ovechkin's contract?

The massive contract of his not only binds the Capitals, it literally squeezes the life out of them, as evident by their awful free agency this year and their inability to come to terms with Mike Ribeiro, among others. So, Ovechkin, seeing what his good friend Ilya Kovalchuk just did, could theoretically do the same exact thing, uproot himself, and outright leave.

Why wouldn’t he do that? It seems like a win-win for everyone for all.

Today all but solidified why Russian players have been stereotyped and dropped in drafts year after year. Pavel Datsyuk, for example, was dropped to 171st overall in the 1998 draft in fear that he would not report. He was the draft’s most complete and lethal player, but seven years after Boris Yeltsin became Russia’s first president after the fall of the Soviet Union, teams did not want to take a shot on him.

Now most teams will think twice before taking a Russian in the top 15 picks of an entry draft. It’s not just the fear of not reporting, but the fear of literally walking away later on down the line. To answer the aforementioned question, Ovechkin would kill any Russian hockey credibility. The Don Cherrys and Jeremy Roenicks of the world will fill the airwaves with banter about how terrible Russians are now that two star players have walked away from the world’s best hockey league and we would be back to the early 1990s minus Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

The Kovalchuk move may not affect the Malkins, Datsyuks, and Ovechkins of the world just yet. However, this really has an effect on the incoming generation of Russian players.

Younger Russian prospects will not see the need to leave Europe/Asia and fly across the pond to play in a premier league when they already have one at home. Alex Radulov, the Kostitsyns, and more recently, Alex Burmistrov discovered this fact. It only raises the question, “who’s next?”

The Devils are going to be dealing with a gaping hole in their lineup for years to come. For one thing, they lose their best goal scorer since John MacLean (Patrik Elias still plays in NJ) and their most prolific offensive threat since Alexander Mogilny.

With this surprise announcement, they lose their most complete player, their potential future captain, and their team identity. This is the player they chose to build around. They let Parise go, they let Clarkson go, but they were hot on Kovalchuk. They lose essentially their only appeal to outside free agents and marketing. They lose their face of the franchise, and their main source of season ticket holders.

Ilya Kovalchuk was the New Jersey Devils.

While the debt-burdened Devils will get out of having to pay Kovalchuk $77 million, this is a good long term benefit for a team struggling to build itself back up. Seventy-seven million dollars is a lot to a team that is around $250 million in the red. For one thing, they now have over $10 million in cap space to compete in a very competitive unrestricted free agent class at the end of this upcoming season. According to the new the collective-bargaining agreement’s cap advantage recapture clause, the Devils will have to pay back that amount over the last 12 years of the contract. That would mean a hit of about $330,000 a season. Had Kovalchuk retired five years from now, the hit would have been upwards of $5 million annually.

If Kovalchuk wanted to hypothetically come back, the Devils do control his rights to a certain extent, though it is a very complicated picture. He would also have to be approved by the league’s board of governors and given a vote of approval by each and every team in the league to permit him to come out of his “retirement.”

Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello had a conference call about the event, receiving a significant amount of questions over the roughly twenty minute duration of the call. Lamoriello kept his personal conversations with Kovalchuk private and was typical Lamoriello for all intents and purposes. When asked about what Ilya meant in terms of being a building block and acting as a face for not just the franchise, but the league, he responded with, “I’m looking forward. I’m not thinking of anything that’s just transpired. I’m not going to allow anything to get in the way of what I have to do as far as distracting myself.”

The Devils chose to not toll his contract, which translates to the Devils did not force Kovalchuk to stay and have the IIHF and the NHL get involved. Lamoriello has a reputation of making his players happy and catering to his demands. The decision to have Kovalchuk leave was mutual. That is why he is one of the most beloved GMs among players, despite the fact that they cannot have Twitter accounts.

In a decision that took the hockey world by storm, Ilya Kovalchuk signed his voluntary retirement papers and has left the National Hockey League. Why exactly this happened may remain a question for quite some time. However, it is not hard to see the bigger picture here. The league has had a strained relationship with its players since its first major labor shortage in the early 1990s and has gone through really more taking than giving. Players now collect less money in hockey related revenues, have devalued and watered down contracts, and are literally bound to their feet. Now some of the league’s best and foreign players have run out of patience.

The KHL and NHL have essentially put up an Iron Curtain between the two leagues and hockey world, and regrettably, Medvedev and Bettman aren’t exactly Reagan and Gorbachev.

Unfortunately, we as fans and citizens of the world get the short end of the hockey stick.

Feel free to follow along on Twitter @dmmm14

David is an 18 year old student currently attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is an avid tennis and hockey player originally from Long Island, NY. He also maintains a stock profile through TD Ameritrade and is an avid investor and reader of current events. In his spare time, he enjoys aviation, playing the guitar and saxophone, singing, and computers.