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How Ilya Kovalchuk Can Return to the NHL & Why New Jersey Should Say No

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In response to a reader question, I delve into the recent speculation, rumors, and NHL by-laws regarding a potential return of Ilya Kovalchuk to the NHL. I explain how he can return, and why New Jersey shouldn't bother trying to retain his services.

Yes, it's 2015 and it's a post about Ilya Kovalchuk. Woo.
Yes, it's 2015 and it's a post about Ilya Kovalchuk. Woo.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Occasionally, I'll get an email from a reader with a question that's worth diving into.  Bill wrote to me on Monday morning about something he's seen at Puck Daddy.  It's about Ilya Kovalchuk. You remember him, wore #17, had a monster shot, didn't really drive play, and left a lot of money in New Jersey to go get a lot of money in St. Petersburg.  Greg Wyshynski had a post on Monday with the headline "Ilya Kovalchuk eyeing NHL return in 2016-17 season: Report." Bill saw it and wanted to know what Kovalchuk's options are for a returning to the league.   It's an interesting question on two fronts. First, let's focus on the direct question: how can Kovalchuk return to the NHL?

Some background: The report Wyshynski was referring to was a Finnish paper claiming that Kovalchuk was thinking about leaving his team, SKA St. Petersburg, in the KHL one year before his contract would end.  Due to the economic hardship of the league and the country, he'd want to come back to the best league in the world where at least the pay is secure.  Wyshynski correctly explained that for him to return to the NHL as a free agent - his contract with the Devils was voided with his voluntary "retirement" - there are only three ways for him to return.

1. All thirty teams would grant permission to return to the NHL.  He would be a free agent.

2. Kovalchuk can sit out a year and not play hockey anywhere.  After then, only the Devils need to grant his permission to return to the NHL. He would be a free agent.

3. Kovalchuk would wait until he's 35.  At that point, he's free to come back without any permission.  That would be the 2018-19 season, or two years after the speculated season he's considering leaving the KHL.

I saw the same post shortly before Bill e-mailed me and made this rather pithy comment on Twitter.

I was speaking personally.  Given all of the drama the franchise has gone under to sign Kovalchuk in the first place, I can't say I'm enthused about his desire to return to the NHL.  Given that his current contract was voided, he'd be an unrestricted free agent.  I wouldn't let him get to act like one if I could do anything about it, so I'd block him out.  Spiteful? Perhaps.  Despite whatever benefit that came with not having to eat that massive contract, a top winger left before he was about to make $11 million.  While Jaromir Jagr was a very nice silver lining last season, the offense from the 30-year old Kovalchuk could've been nicer.

Amazingly, I may have been more right than I thought.  In this FanPost by ILWT reader snwbdgislife discussing this same topic, ILWT leader Bar Man brought up this Rich Chere article from last August as evidence that Lou probably would block it.  Chere was asking the owners and Lou about the rumor of Kovalchuk returning.  Lou made it so clear that Chere didn't tease it from the headline:

Lamoriello stressed why Kovalchuk would be unable to come back before 2018-19.

"I’ll answer that the best way you can. He cannot come back until he is 35. He’s (31) now. You’d never look at someone coming back at 35 when he’s (31)," the GM explained.

On this alone, I am confident that even if Kovalchuk sits around and doesn't play hockey for a year, Lou will still say no if Kovalchuk tries to come back before the summer of 2018.

If that wasn't enough, this article by Aivis Kalnins at Last Word on Sports has responses to the rumor from the vice president of his team, SKA St. Petersburg, an analyst, and Kovalchuk's agent.  They were all emphatic that Kovalchuk isn't going to go anywhere until his contract ends in 2017.  At that point, it gets a little more interesting because he'll be out of contract.  Of course, he'll also be 34.  Still, even with the league's (and country's) financial woes, there's more incentive to keep the big names like Kovalchuk happy by ensuring they get what they're owed. And unless I'm mistaken, SKA is one of the richest teams in the league. They can probably pay Kovalchuk enough to keep him at least content.

So, from all of this, it seems clear that there's not a lot of meat to this sandwich.  There are options but it appears that anyone wanting to drop money on a Kovalchuk jersey is going to have to wait another three years.  Of course, nothing involving Kovalchuk and the Devils ever appears to be simple.  On Twitter, Louis Jean of TVA had this curious note. He did not follow up what those circumstances were.  Pierre LeBrun provided another clue in this video at TSN. He stated that there was a "conflicting provision in the CBA" that he may not need everyone else's permission if Kovalchuk returns to the Devils somehow.  That's a pretty big deal.  But what are these provisions?

Fortunately, we live in the Age of the Internet and so someone has dug it up.  On the Devils sub-reddit on, well, Reddit, moderator VasiliiZaytsev found that the provision is in the NHL's by-laws. Vasilii found the relevant section and broke it down section by section in this post.  The main conclusion is that the Devils can absolutely bring back Kovalchuk a lot more easily than having to wait until he's 35 or hope everyone else in the league is OK with Kovalchuk wanting to play in a better league than the KHL.  The key section from what I read of Vasilii's reading is 8.4, quoted here with Vasilii's commentary:

8.4. Except as provided in Section 8.7 of this By-Law relating to professional players reinstated as amateurs, the Club on whose Voluntarily Retired List a player's name has been registered may transfer his name back on its Reserve List at any time after the expiry of one year from the date of registration on the Voluntarily Retired List by filing any currently valid contract, option, or try-out.

So, if I am interpreting this correctly -- and there doesn't seem to be much room for interpreting it any other way -- the Devils can transfer Kovy from the Voluntarily Retired List back to their Reserve List at any point now that 1 year has passed since he filed his voluntary retirement papers, simply by signing him to an NHL contract.

We know that Kovalchuk signed voluntary retirement papers.  The following Section 8.5 requires written consent were that player to play organized hockey within three years of signing of those papers. Since Kovalchuk went right to SKA St. Petersburg, it's a safe assumption that was done.  So if Lou wants to and Kovalchuk can get out of his contract, he can sign Kovalchuk to a contract. Provided he agrees, which would add him to the reserve list, essentially "un-retiring" Kovalchuk.   The resulting comments are a "WOO LOU IS THE MASTER KOVALCHUK CAN RETURN" party.

With all due respect to r/devils, I need to pour some rain on that party.  This all answers how Kovalchuk can return. I want to focus on the more interesting second front of Bill's question.  The question he didn't ask but logically follows from it: why would the Devils or anyone want Kovalchuk back?

The whole point of 8.4 in the by-laws is contingent on a contract being signed.  Putting aside how the league would take it when they get it for filing and approving, there's no speculation that Kovalchuk wants to come back to New Jersey.  Kovalchuk left $11 million in salary for 2013-14 to make over $15 million with SKA St. Petersburg.  Kovalchuk clearly wants to make a lot of money playing hockey and I can respect that.  He would be able to obtain maximum value as a free agent, whether he does it before 2016-17 at age 33, after 2016-17 at age 34, or even when he's 35 after the 2017-18 season.  Assuming Lou wants him back, how much would Kovalchuk be asking? And how far off would it be from what he's worth?   Basically, this by-law means little if Kovalchuk isn't interested.

Would there even be room if there is mutual interest?  Yes, the team has had a history of seemingly always needing scoring forwards.  We don't know what the roster, the coaching staff, or even management will look like by 2016-17, 2017-18, or even 2018-19.  It's not a guarantee that the Devils would necessarily need Kovalchuk's services, have the cap space to acquire Kovalchuk's services, or even room on the roster to add Kovalchuk's services.  Kovalchuk's not coming back to play for a minimum wage, one-year "show me something and you'll get paid" deal.

Most importantly, the Kovalchuk that would be returning would likely not be the same Kovalchuk who was a star in the NHL.  The Devils or anyone wouldn't likely even get the same Kovalchuk who put up 89 goals, 112 assists, and 789 shots in 222 games with New Jersey from 2010 through 2013. Kovalchuk will turn 32 in a few weeks. If the Finnish paper is right, he wants to get out at 33.  Kovalchuk's current contract ends when he turns 34.  Lou's quote and the by-laws say he's free at 35.   Knowing he's been playing professional hockey for most of his life, he's got a lot of wear and tear on his body.  Kovalchuk has missed a few games in each season with SKA; nothing huge, but definitely notable.  We know his back may be a concern since it's been hurt before.   The larger point is that players don't get faster, more durable, or more skilled in their early 30s.  The Devils or some other team will be getting an older Kovalchuk and the risks that come with that.

Further, they'd be getting a less than impressive Kovalchuk.  For all of his all-world talent, has anyone noticed that he hasn't been dominating the KHL?  Sure, he's been one of the top scorers in the league.  Sure, he's been averaging a point per game in his three KHL seasons.  Sure, he's been averaging well over three shots per game on average.  But for all of discussion about how "elite" he can be, isn't anyone concerned that Kovalchuk is playing a weaker league on a marquee team and still finishes behind the likes of Steve Moses, Nigel Dawes, and Stephane Da Costa in goals this season? And this is to say nothing about whatever bad habits (e.g. defense) he may have recovered by playing in a lesser league.  Let's take it a step further. Thanks to Eric T showed on the SBN NHL hub a year ago, scoring rates tend to dip harshly the older a player gets.  That was for NHL players; throw in needing to get back into form in a tougher league and I'd think the dip would be sharper.    My conclusion would be that perhaps he's not who he once was; he's not all-world anymore.   And he won't regain that status by playing in a better league as an older player short of changing his name like World B. Free or joining the wacky world of professional wrestling and making that his gimmick.

Either way, Kovalchuk in 2016, 2017, or 2018 isn't likely to be as good as he was in 2006, 2010, or 2012.  It's unclear whether the Devils can afford him or even include him in the future.  It's even less clear what Kovalchuk would even demand.  I don't see the Devils chomping at the bit to add him to the reserve list.  And even if the Devils decide to not block a return, I don't see teams falling over themselves just to get him.  He may be a "name," but the NHL has done rather well without him.  He may able to have flashes of his former self, as we see from aging players; but if he can't do it regularly enough to make a difference, Kovalchuk may be just another guy when he comes back to the NHL And that's assuming that even happens.  By 2016 or 2017, Kovalchuk may realize he's not going to have it that much better so why make another transition?

Let's summarize this for Bill and for myself just to reiterate the situation.  If Kovalchuk wants to return as a free agent, he's going to need permission or he's going to have to wait until he's 35.  If Kovalchuk and the Devils want to business with each other, then it's more possible he can come back without permission.  That's the how.  However, it's unknown whether the Devils and Kovalchuk want to do business with each other or if they can accommodate each other. I have doubts that he's even worth the trouble for the Devils - or anyone.  He's going to be older and while he's been very good within the KHL, the fact that he's not destroying the league speaks to the fact that he's not who he once was as a forward.  He won't return as he goes deeper into his 30s.  That's why the Devils should just stay away from signing him regardless of how much they may (potentially) need scoring forwards.  The idea is to get good players to fit needs, not players who were once really good hoping they're good enough to fit needs.

As that by-law from 8.4 wouldn't matter, then Lou can block him until he's 35 so no one else takes that risk and hopes they get lucky with a mid-30s Kovalchuk.   At that point, allow some other sucker team get drawn in by his past pedigree and what he did in his 20s (e.g. Philadelphia) and suffer when they find out it's not all worth it.  Assuming Kovalchuk even bothers trying to make the effort to return to the best league in the world.  I hope that answers Bill's question and anything you may have regarding the whole situation.  It's certainly the only two cents I have about it.