Ilya Kovalchuk was benched by his Russian team for a playoff game. Will this be the first step in an eventual return to the NHL, or does that remain unlikely for the 32-year-old?

By Allan Muir
February 22, 2016

Ilya Kovalchuk may be in the doghouse with his Russian club, but that doesn’t mean he’s likely to desert the KHL anytime soon.

The news broke Monday morning that the star of SKA St. Petersburg will be benched for Tuesday’s playoff match against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl because of “his poor performance.” It's an issue that Igor Eronko of the Russian newspaper Sport-Express said has been brewing for “a long time,” but came to a head after his uninspired performance in SKA’s 3–2 loss to Lokotmotiv in the series opener.

The 32-year-old winger has 16 goals and 49 points in 51 games this season, his third since returning to Russia to play in the KHL. Just four of those goals have come in his past 18 games however, and each of those came against teams that failed to make the playoffs.

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That’s not what what coach Sergei Zubov was expecting from the player believed to be the highest paid in the KHL. And the concern for Zubov is that one bad apple is contaminating the whole team.

“Ten candidates for the Russian national team play for St. Petersburg, but they do not play as well as they should,” said Russian hockey commentator Sergey Gimaev. “Something must change. And that starts with Kovalchuk.

“[Benching him] shifts the responsibility to the other players,” Gimaev continued. ”They know they can be better. This shifts the pressure onto them to compete without Kovalchuk. It’s the right decision by Zubov.”

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The news has kicked off speculation that a fracture with SKA could lead to Kovalchuk’s return to the NHL. The reality though? That’s not likely to happen.

Kovalchuk signed his NHL retirement papers in July 2013, terminating a deal with the New Jersey Devils that still had 12 years and $77 million remaining. Days later, he signed a four-year deal with SKA.

That contract runs through the 2016–17 season, but a return is unlikely even after it expires. Because Kovalchuk retired mid-contract, he would need the approval of every NHL club to regain eligibility. That’s not happening.

Alternately, he would be required to sit out a year after that contract expires, a period during which he’d be unable to play professional hockey at any level. Hard to see how that makes sense, on a personal or professional level.

It’s more likely that this benching plays out exactly as Zubov intended: as a wakeup call for a player who can be a difference maker in the league.

Remember, it was just a year ago that SKA won the Gagarin Cup. The playoff MVP? Ilya Kovalchuk.

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