But on Thursday, Kovalchuk suddenly announced his retirement, walking away from the nearly $77 million that remained on his contract to return to Russia with his wife and three children.
In a statement released by the Devils and General Manager Lou Lamoriello, Kovalchuk said that he had settled on his decision to return to Russia during the lockout, while playing 36 games for SKA St. Petersburg of the K.H.L.
“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.”
In July 2010, the Devils tried to sign him to a 17-year, $102 million deal, the biggest commitment the Devils have made to a player. But the N.H.L. ruled that the deal circumvented league regulations. The Devils were fined $3 million, a third-round draft choice in 2011 and a first-round pick, which they will forfeit in next year’s draft. The Devils then signed him to the 15-year deal. Long-term contracts like Kovalchuk’s were banned by the league after the most recent lockout. Now the maximum contract length is eight years.
“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,” Lamoriello said in the statement. “On behalf of the entire organization, I wish Ilya and his family all the best in their future endeavors.”
For the Devils, there is a financial bright side to Kovalchuk’s departure. Now that his contract is void, the Devils must pay him only $250,000 a year until 2024-25, the last year of the deal.
“Right now we just have to take a step back to go forward, and we just have to evaluate what our options are and do the best we can,” Lamoriello said later in a conference call. “We’ll be ready to play in September.”
Kovalchuk may be leaving behind a lot of money, but with SKA or another K.H.L. club he could make a salary comparable to the $6.67 million a year he made on average with the Devils. K.H.L. salaries for stars are similar to those in the N.H.L.
Kovalchuk was unavailable for comment, and his North American agent, Jay Grossman, did not return calls. Lamoriello said Kovalchuk told him during the lockout about his thought process for staying in Russia, but that there was no conversation on the subject when the season started.
Kovalchuk, a native of Tver who came up through Spartak Moscow’s youth teams, has long been known for his enthusiasm for playing for Russia. He has played in 13 tournaments for his country at the senior level.
At the end of the lockout in January, Lamoriello and the Devils allowed him to stay in Russia for a couple of days past the start of training camp so he could play in the K.H.L. All-Star Game.
The Atlanta Thrashers made Kovalchuk the first overall selection in the 2000 N.H.L. draft. He played with the Thrashers until he was traded to the Devils on Feb. 4, 2010.
In addition to 417 goals, he had 399 assists for 816 points in 816 games. Only Joe Thornton (939), Martin St. Louis (852) and Jarome Iginla (839) scored more points over the past 11 years.
Kovalchuk’s playoff production, however, was limited. He scored 11 goals and 16 assists in 32 games. In 2012, when the Devils reached the Stanley Cup finals, he played through injuries and had 8 goals and 11 assists in 23 games.