Adam Oates: Ilya Kovalchuk’s retirement ‘sad for the league’

July 11, 2013

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

In a stunning move, New Jersey Devils’ star winger Ilya Kovalchuk announced he was retiring from the NHL Thursday.

Kovalchuk, 30, is walking away from $77 million in future salary that he was to receive over the final 12 years of his contract. Over the course of his 11-year NHL career, Kovalchuk recorded 417 goals and 399 assists in 816 games.

“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 in a news release. “Though I decided to return this past season, [Devils General Manager] Lou [Lamoriello] 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.”

According to Sovetsky Sport, Kovalchuk will play in the KHL for SKA St. Petersburg, where he played during the lockout.

Capitals Coach Adam Oates worked with Kovalchuk during his two years as an assistant coach in New Jersey in 2009-10 and 2010-11. He helped Kovalchuk switch to right wing, a move that Oates opted to repeat with Washington’s star winger Alex Ovechkin this past season, and worked with him to become a more well rounded player.

“It’s sad. He’s a marquee name in our league and a great player,” Oates said Thursday. “I obviously had a chance to coach him for a couple years, really liked him. It’s sad for the league, it’s one of our good players.”

There’s been growing concern over the past several years about the possibility of top European players opting to remain or return overseas, particularly to the KHL where they can receive exorbitant salaries. While a few players, like Alexander Radulov, have opted to   leave the NHL for the KHL Kovalchuk is the first elite talent to make the move.

“You obviously committed to a player and you kind of build your team around a guy and then that player leaves — it’s not a precedent that we want to start for sure,” Oates said. “It will make it difficult for many more Europeans to come over because general managers won’t trust them.”

This certainly changes the outlook for the Devils, who are in the Capitals’ new yet-to-be-named division. New Jersey must now rebuild on the fly and try to reorganize their plan for the future without Kovalchuk in the mix.

“He’s a superstar, it’s kind of like when LeBron left Cleveland. It reversed two franchises that fast, it’s a different sport, so it’s not quite accurate,” Oates said. “Lou Lamoriello is the type of man, he’s dealt with adversity before. He’ll get through it no question, but still it’s arguably their best player they’re missing right now.”

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Katie Carrera · July 11, 2013

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