For New Jersey, Ilya Kovalchuk was the gift that kept on taking. With his shocking retirement announcement, the cost of acquiring him in February 2010 and re-signing him that summer went up yet again.
When the Devils traded for the prized sniper -- who was on an expiring contract and refusing to re-sign with the Atlanta Thrashers for a reported offer of 12 years and $101 million -- they surrendered Johnny Oduya (who won the Stanley Cup this year with the Blackhawks), Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, and a first- and second-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft (both of which Atlanta dealt to Chicago). The price soon got steeper.
The NHL later accused the Devils of trying to circumvent the salary cap in their initial attempt to sign Kovalchuk to a new and unprecedented deal: 17 years worth a total of $102 million, creatively structured so that he would be paid only $550,000 for each of the final five seasons, thus averaging out the cap hit to $6 million per year for the length of the deal. (He was to be paid as much as $11.5 million per season for years three through seven.) Arbitrator Richard Bloch upheld the league's view and the Devils were fined $3 million and forced to forfeit a third-round pick in the 2011 draft.
Still to come: another first round pick in next year's draft will be lost as part of that punishment. A league spokesman told SI.com on Thursday that Kovalchuk's retirement does not negate that part of the damage.
But wait, there's more: There's also the "cap recapture" payments the Devils will be assessed, a new wrinkle in the CBA that will cost them between $250,000 and $300,000 per year through 2024-25.
And let's not forget the fact that Kovalchuk's restructured 15-year, $100 million deal that the league office eventually found acceptable still ate up significant cap space, enough so that it likely played a role in the Devils not being able to formulate an offer that would have allowed them to retain Zach Parise last summer. At the time, Parise was the team's captain, its best all around player, and the one Devil who could get the most out of Kovalchuk. Parise is now playing for Minnesota.
That's not to mention less tangible elements, such as the blemish to the Devils' once-clean reputation among executives in the league office.
And what did New Jersey get for all that?
After Kovalchuk signed the deal, he played so poorly that Devils fans booed him, especially when he flubbed a shootout attempt against Buffalo in November 2010, making him a target of league-wide ridicule. He finished his first full season in New Jersey with 31 goals and 60 points, his lowest totals since his rookie season with the Thrashers in 2001-02. He rebounded strongly in 2011-12, scoring 37 goals and netting 83 points while finding good chemistry on a line with Parise, who pushed him to raise his level of play in the more defensively responsible Devils firmament. Kovalchuk was a core member of that team that went to the Stanley Cup Final, where it lost to the Los Angeles Kings.
You won't find much more when it comes to Kovalchuk's highlights wearing the red and black. This past season, he didn't want to return from Russia after the lockout and pretty much played like it -- 11 goals and 31 points for a team that looked as if it badly missed Parise. Now New Jersey won't have either of them or Clarkson. Just where is the Devils' offense going to come from next season? And how disgusted are their fans going to be?
So that's what the Devils got -- oh yeah, they also paid Kovalchuk about $23 million in salary. Not a great return, eh?
New Jersey had never acquired a player like Kovalchuk before. He had been a world-class offensive talent, but didn't really fit the Devils' team identity. This is a club that historically has been composed of affordable, defense-first, solid all-around players. The formula worked pretty damn well -- three Stanley Cups since 1995 and two other trips to the final. Only the Red Wings have done better than that. The Devils' most famous skater and leader was a defenseman: Scott Stevens. The face of the franchise has long been goaltender Martin Brodeur, and the Devils made a big splash at the draft last month in their own arena by trading with Vancouver for Brodeur's heir apparent in net, Cory Schneider.
So this is who the Devils are and, for the most part, have always been. In Atlanta, Kovalchuk had topped the 40-goal mark in five consecutive seasons, twice topping 50, and between the Thrashers and New Jersey had a sixth 40-plus campaign during the season he was traded.
It appeared, on the surface at least, as if Devils president/GM Lou Lamoriello was trying to change his club's image. But there was much scuttlebutt that acquiring and re-signing Kovalchuk was the notion of the team's managing partner, Jeff Vanderbeek, and not Lamoriello, who had always spoken in favor of a more prudent approach to team-building.
Lamoriello has always denied this, maintaining the NHL had changed from the days when his club could defensively smother opponents en route to championships, and that success in the league now required dynamic offensive players like Kovalchuk. If so, Lou didn't get much of what he bargained for out of the talented Russian.
Yes, the Devils will save some $77 million (minus the cap recapture payments) by cutting ties with Kovalchuk. But the cost of having him wear that stylized "NJ" crest for the last three seasons and change has been staggering.
Our culture loves to affix blame for screw-ups this huge, and I suppose we'll read stories to that effect in the coming days. But how can you blame a professional team that too few fans care about for wanting to get better and raise its profile in an ever-changing sport? How can you blame a league that has been desperate for years to control salaries -- and is unafraid to lose whole and partial seasons to do so -- for punishing teams that break the rules especially hard? And how can you blame a guy like Kovalchuk who has had enough of the NHL and just wants to go home?
Sometimes things just go wrong in this world and searching for villains is a fruitless enterprise. Ilya Kovalchuk's time in New Jersey seems like one of those chapters.
The scary thing is, Kovalchuk's departure may not be the end of it.