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Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk stuns NHL with retirement, sparks potential KHL drama

Ilya Kovalchuk Ilya Kovalchuk, 30, shocked the NHL world by announcing his retirement on July 11. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

By Allan Muir

The New Jersey Devils have announced that forward Ilya Kovalchuk is retiring from the National Hockey League.

"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia," Kovalchuk said. "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."

New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello issued the following statement: "After many conversations with Ilya over the past year on his desire to retire from the National Hockey League, Ilya's decision became official today. On behalf of the entire organization, I wish Ilya and his family all the best in their future endeavors."

HACKEL: Devils paid high price for little from Kovalchuk

Kovalchuk, who was selected first overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, played 11 seasons in the NHL, including the last four with New Jersey. He retires with career totals of 417 goals and 399 assists for 816 points in 816 games.

Kovalchuk, 30, had 12 years remaining on the 15-year, $100-million deal he signed in 2010. By retiring, he walks away from $77 million.

MUIR: Twitter reactions to Kovalchuk's bombshell

The front-loaded construction of that deal ran afoul of the NHL's previous CBA, and led to the Devils being fined $3 million and two draft picks, including the team's first rounder in the 2014 draft.

According to a league source, Kovalchuk's retirement has no impact on that impending forfeiture.

The Devils also will face a cap recapture penalty because of the early retirement. It's believed that hit will be around $300,000 per year through the 2024-25 season.

Already, the careful wording of the official statements has sparked swirling speculation that Kovalchuk is not finished with hockey. Sources already are reporting that he will sign with SKA St. Petersburg of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, perhaps as soon as Friday.

If that's the case, he won't have to mourn the money he left on the table here. David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period magazine tweeted that Kovalchuk was paid "upwards of $15 million" while playing in Russia during the NHL lockout. "IF he goes there, that's his likely salary," Pagnotta said.

Pavel Lysenkov of SovSport suggests the number could go even higher -- perhaps as high as $20 million per season.

If it plays out this way, it will be interesting to see how this signing impacts the agreement between the NHL and KHL to honor the contractual obligations of players in each league.

It's worth noting that Kovalchuk and the Devils mutually terminated his contract, which frees him up to do anything he wants with the rest of his life, including signing on with a team in another league. But if all it takes to switch from one league to the other is "retirement," then the current agreement will be rendered meaningless. And the "Russian Factor" that once applied only to young players and prospects now paints a much broader stroke, covering every player, no matter his age, experience or contractual obligation.

Now, after years of being the poor relation, the KHL has to be regarded as a real threat to retain top regional talent. And every team that employs a Russian-born skater has to be wondering if its guy is next.

Reactionary? Hardly. Remember, the defection of a single superstar helped legitimize the World Hockey Association. When Bobby Hull ditched the Chicago Blackhawks for the Winnipeg Jets in 1972, his presence transformed the WHA from a halfway house for marginal players into a legitimate threat to the financial stability of the NHL.

The NHL's Russian players hold Kovalchuk in high regard. If he's willing to leave the NHL to play at home, it's only a matter of time before someone else takes his cue and follows him back to Mother Russia.

And it could be anyone.

MUIR: Where Kovalchuk ranks in NHL's Russian pantheon

Photo gallery: Ilya Kovalchuk's NHL career

Photo gallery: Biggest sports retirements of 2013

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