With his stunning announcement that he is retiring from the NHL at age 30 after 11 seasons, winger Ilya Kovalchuk walked away from the New Jersey Devils and a contract that would have paid him $77 million during the next 12 seasons. Here's a look back at the career of one of the game's premiere snipers.
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Kovalchuk was the first Russian ever drafted No. 1 overall by an NHL team. He came to the Atlanta Thrashers in 2001, chosen ahead of center Jason Spezza (Ottawa) after a stellar run in international hockey that included being named Best Player at the 2001 U-18 World Championships, where he led the tournament in scoring as Russia won the gold medal. He was also the leading scorer (46 points in 40 games) for Spartak Moscow of the Russian Division 2 League.
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A superb skater with excellent speed, Kovalchuk boasted a brilliant mix of puckhandling skills, a hard, accurate snot, scoring touch and toughness. He produced 29 goals and 51 points in his first season with the Thrashers before suffering a shoulder injury, and was named to the 2001-02 NHL All-Rookie Team. Linemate Danny Heatley (right) ended up winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
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Kovalchuk's 38 goals during his second season started a run of 10 consecutive campaigns in which he topped the 30 mark. (He twice hit career-highs of 52.) In 2003-04, he won his lone award -- sharing the Rocket Richard Trophy with Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash as the NHL's leading goal-scorers (41). He later played in three All-Star Games (2004, '08, '09) and earned NHL All-Star First Team honors in 2011-12.
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Cursed by weak supporting casts during his eight seasons in Atlanta, Kovalchuk made only one postseason appearance with the Thrashers -- a four-game sweep by the Rangers in 2007 in which he scored once. However, he often played inspired hockey for Russia in international tournaments, including three Winter Olympics (bronze in 2002) and eight World Championships. He scored the gold medal winner at the 2008 worlds.
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Set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2010, Kovalchuk declined a reported 12-year, $101 million offer by the Thrashers and was traded to New Jersey that February for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and a first- and second-round pick in that year's draft. Atlanta's fans did not take well to being spurned. As for Kovalchuk, he seemed like an odd fit on a traditionally defense-minded team, but he put up 27 points in 27 games for the Devils, who fell to Philadelphia in five first-round playoff games. He produced six points in his second career postseason appearance.
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The Kovalchuk sweepstakes was on and the Los Angeles Kings -- whom the Devils would meet in the Stanley Cup Final two years later -- were in the running (with a 15-year, $80 million offer), as was the KHL. New Jersey made headlines by signing the star sniper to an unprecedented 17-year, $102 million dollar deal that the NHL nixed because it was front-loaded in order to skirt the salary cap. A new 15-year, $100 million contract was worked out, but not before the Devils were fined $3 million and forced to cough up a third-round pick in the 2011 draft and a first-rounder that they chose to surrender in 2014.
8 of 12Lou Capozzola/SI
Seemingly laboring under the weight of his huge deal and equally large expectations, Kovalchuk finished the regular season with 31 goals and 60 points, his lowest totals since his rookie season. The Devils, meanwhile, failed to make the playoffs.
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Kovalchuk's second full season in New Jersey was much more successful. His defensive game began to improve while he led the team in goals (37) and points (83) and then played a key, productive role as the Devils' leading scorer during their surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final, where they fell in six games to the LA Kings. It was later revealed that Kovalchuk had battled through the postseason with a back injury that he remained stoic about. "You know, it's a bad excuse," he said. "I don't think one guy on the ice was 100 percent healthy, so you've got to take care of yourself the next couple of months and be ready for next year."
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Next year proved to be delayed by three months due to a lockout, and Kovalchuk signed on with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, captaining the team, playing well (42 points in 36 games) and sewing the seeds of his decision to leave the Devils. As the lockout dragged on, he, like fellow Russian star Alex Ovechkin, dropped hints that they might not return to their NHL teams.
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The lockout-shortened season was a disappointment for the Devils, who had lost star center Zach Parise to free agency the previous summer. They failed to make the playoffs and Kovalchuk had a lackluster campaign with 11 goals and 31 points.
12 of 12Julio Cortez/AP
The July 11 news that Kovalchuk was turning his back on the rest of his deal with the Devils shook the NHL. He departs the league with 816 points in 816 career games, good for fourth all-time among Russian-born NHL players. SI.com's Allan Muir assessed Kovalchuk's place in the Russian pantheon HERE, but there is a sense that he could do so much more with his considerable talent if he stays. What his presence will do for the prestige of the KHL remains to be seen, and the same is true for the effect of his absence on the Devils.
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