Ilya Kovalchuk (center) was stripped of SKA St. Petersburg's captaincy. (Alexander DemianchukTASS via Getty Images)
Former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk won’t play for the rest of the KHL post-season but reports state he will stay with SKA St. Petersburg until May 1, at the very least. Kovalchuk, 32, hasn’t played since the first game of SKA’s first-round series. St. Petersburg won the series 4-1.
Those hoping to know the fate of former NHL all-star Ilya Kovlachuk shouldn’t expect a resolution until May at the earliest.
Kovalchuk, 32, has spent the past three seasons of his career with the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg, but problems arose after the opening game of the club’s first-round playoff series against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, which SKA lost 3-2 in overtime. After the loss, Kovalchuk was sent back to St. Petersburg ahead of Game Two to train individually and he was held out of the lineup for the second game of the series. SKA won, and continued to win, and Kovalchuk remained out of the lineup.
Now, with SKA onto the second round with a 4-1 series victory over Lokomotiv, it appears Kovalchuk, who was stripped of the team’s captaincy, won’t be returning to the St. Petersburg lineup for the remainder of the playoffs, and there’s reason to wonder if he will ever skate with the team again.
There were a number of reports Monday that Kovalchuk and his agent were working to terminate the veteran winger’s contract, however that doesn’t appear to be the case. According to Sport-Express.ru’s Igor Eronko, Kovalchuk won’t have his contract terminated — at least, not until after April 30.
No matter how deep in the post-season SKA makes it, their season will be over by May, at which time it appears there could be a decision made regarding Kovalchuk’s future. This is Kovalchuk’s third season with the Russian club, which means he’ll have one season left on his four-year deal he signed with St. Petersburg in 2013, a deal that was reportedly worth roughly $15 million USD per season. The entire situation is made more compelling by the fact he led SKA to a Gagarin Cup championship in 2014-15 and was named the post-season MVP.
Before everyone gets excited, though, it’s worth nothing that the present-day Kovalchuk isn’t the same one as the consistent 40-to-50-goal player he was during his NHL years. Kovalchuk’s production in the KHL has slipped and he hasn’t scored more than 25 goals in 54 games during his three seasons in the primarily Russian league. This season, he scored 16 goals and 49 points in 50 games. While he’s still talented, he’s not the offensive dynamo he once was, and the more likely scenario is that Kovalchuk would be a 30-goal scorer if he returned to the NHL. That’s probably absolute top end, too.
That Kovalchuk’s camp has mentioned contract termination doesn’t necessarily mean that’ll be the case, though, and it doesn’t mean an NHL return is a foregone conclusion. There are a number of possible outcomes to the situation, including reconciliation with SKA, however unlikely that may seem at this point. Even if Kovalchuk terminates his deal, there are a few KHL teams who could potentially afford to bring him aboard. While it may seem far-fetched, it’s hard to rule out a European club taking a shot at signing Kovalchuk, in large part because it would mean fewer hoops to jump through than there would be for an NHL return.
According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, there are three potential ways for Kovalchuk to make an NHL return. He could: 1) have all 30 teams sign off on his return; 2) sit out one year and return with the Devils’ permission; or 3) return after April 2018, at which point he would be considered a free agent. The first two options are the only ones if Kovalchuk wishes to terminate his deal — if SKA doesn’t do it for him — and make a somewhat swift return to the NHL. The third option seems to be one that would only happen should he remain in competitive hockey in another league, KHL included, until the 2018-19 season. He would be 35 at that point.
Should Kovalchuk choose or find a way to terminate his deal and wish to make an NHL return, the most likely scenario seems to be that he would come back as a member of the New Jersey Devils.
Whatever the case may be, though, don’t be expecting this to be resolved any time soon.