Ilya Kovalchuk (center) was stripped of SKA St. Petersburg's captaincy. (Alexander DemianchukTASS via Getty Images)
Ilya Kovalchuk could be heading to China next season to join the KHL’s newest franchise. The move would signal the end to Kovalchuk’s saga with SKA St. Petersburg, who stripped him of the captaincy and benched him twice during their current post-season run.
SKA St. Petersburg has continued to roll on through the KHL post-season without the services of Ilya Kovalchuk, who was stripped of the captaincy and has been a healthy scratch for most of the first two rounds, but the saga may be coming to a bizarre close.
According to Agence France-Presse’s Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, Russian media has been told that Kovalchuk will be leaving St. Petersburg at the end of this season and will suit up for the KHL’s expansion team in China next season. It had been previously reported that Kovalchuk would remain with SKA until at least April 30, meaning any movement from St. Petersburg may have to wait until the summer. SKA is denying the move will take place, however.
The KHL signed a “protocol of intentions” with Chinese club HC Red Star Kunlun in mid-March that would see the team participate in the 2016-17 KHL campaign. Their addition to the league hasn’t yet been finalized as Kunlun needs to “present financial guarantees by April 30th, 2016, comply with conditions imposed on clubs participants and adhere to the rules established by the KHL Regulations.”
A final decision will be made regarding the club this summer, but it’s likely they will debut in the league when the next KHL season opens.
Kovalchuk, 32, has not played since the third game of SKA’s second-round series against Dynamo Moscow, a series which St. Petersburg was trailing 2-1 with Kovalchuk but went on to win 4-2 with their former captain out of the lineup.
When Kovalchuk originally returned to the SKA lineup after being scratched for each of SKA’s wins in the first round series victory over Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, there was some speculation that the relationship between he and SKA could be salvaged, though much of that hope disappeared when he was once again shelved by the club. There’s still a possibility he could stay in St. Petersburg, but the chances seem incredibly slim.
Likewise, there was talk of a potential NHL return for the former Rocket Richard winner, but Kovalchuk would have to jump through hoops in order to return to North America next season. He would need all 30 teams to sign off on his return if he were to come back to the NHL in 2016-17, and his other options include sitting out an entire season or waiting until 2018 to sign a free agent deal with an NHL club of his choosing.
Kovalchuk ending up with the Chinese expansion club, if that comes to pass, would be one of the most unexpected resolutions to his situation with SKA. Kovalchuk has a big-money contract, and that will be a lot for the expansion franchise to take on. It will, however, give him a fresh start on a team that will likely be sorely lacking for standout talent, and it gives them instant star power to help grow the game in China.