Ilya Kovalchuk staying in Russia for 2017-18; did Devils make mistake?

Ilya Kovalchuk will remain in the Kontinental Hockey League for the 2017-18 season, ending months of speculation that he’d return to the NHL.

The New Jersey Devils held his rights this summer, a result of Kovalchuk’s “retirement” in 2013 that shocked the team while also conveniently helping them, from a salary cap perspective, in the long run.

Kovalchuk’s agent, Jay Grossman, tried to facilitate a trade-and-sign scenario with teams. Devils GM Ray Shero was in talks with several teams too, but didn’t find a deal to his liking for a player that could still pop 30 goals in the NHL.

Shero knew he had asset. He wasn’t going to allow the peculiar nature of his situation bring him “pennies on the dollar,” as he said Sunday.

So the Devils will essentially lose Kovalchuk with nothing to show for it, as he can make another run at an NHL return in Summer 2018 as an unrestricted free agent, per CBA rules.

(By returning to the KHL and SKA St. Petersburg, he’s also eligible to play for Russia in the 2018 Winter Olympics, which is kind of a big deal for Russian players and, let’s face it, the head of their government.)

Igor Eronko of Sports Express reports that the “Devils’ high demands” were one reason he remained in the KHL. Which does beg the question: Was it better to just let him walk away without getting compensation, or to have made a deal here?

But then that begs a second question: What actually was the market for Ilya Kovalchuk? Where would he have played?

There was a bunch of noise about the Columbus Blue Jackets, especially after they acquired Artemi Panarin. Some assumed Montreal might kick the can after losing Alex Radulov. The Toronto Maple Leafs and former GM Lou Lamoriello were allegedly on Kovalchuk’s “wish list,” but their signing of Patrick Marleau made that reunion unlikely.

No, the only concrete things we knew about Kovalchuk were his preference to stay in the northeastern U.S. and his desire to play for the New York Rangers.

And so if the market for Kovalchuk was essentially “the New York Rangers” and you’re Ray Shero, GM of the New Jersey Devils … well, yeah, your demands are probably quite lofty. And your willingness to do business with them is probably quite low.

So ends the bizarre saga of Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils, who traded for him at the deadline in 2010 from the Atlanta Thrashers; signed him to a massive 17-year contract that summer, which was rejected by the NHL, and then signed him to a 15-year, $100-million contract that was structured in a way where he probably would have left for the KHL in 2018. Instead, he bolted in 2013, losing his passion for the NHL after the lockout, leaving $77 million on the table from the Devils. And then, in the last year in which they had his rights, they basically kept him out of the League in 2017-18 by not finding a deal they felt was suitable.

Thus begins the saga of Ilya Kovalchuk as an unrestricted free agent next summer, where even at 35 years old he’ll have his pick of suitors.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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