Ilya Kovalchuk (via KHL/YouTube)
The Russian superstar has run afoul of SKA-St. Petersburg in the KHL. One year after leading the franchise to a title with his MVP performance, he's been scratched and the rumors are flying. The real story may be financial, however.
Can you imagine an NHL team adding Ilya Kovachuk to its lineup for a playoff run this season? It wouldn't be the most surprising move ever made by the powerful left winger, but it would be quite the bomb during trade deadline week.
The impetus for this idea comes from Russia, where Kovalchuk has come under fire during the first round of the KHL playoffs. His team, SKA-St. Petersburg, has stripped the veteran of the captaincy and scratched him for the past two playoff games against Yaroslavl Lokomotiv. St. Petersburg has won both of those games after dropping the opener in overtime. There have been reports that Kovalchuk wants out and has threatened to leave for North America, but this all seems a bit fishy.
There may be another explanation to all of this.
Kovalchuk is being maligned for poor play in Game 1 of the Loko series, yet he led the team in ice time and was trusted enough to be given shifts in overtime, with the game on the line.'Kovy' may have been a minus-2 on the night, but he was also on the ice for SKA's first goal, which came on the power play (and you don't get a 'plus' for PP goals).
There has been talk of a crucial turnover being the start of the problem, but if it was so bad, why was Kovalchuk not benched for overtime?
From folks I've talked to, it may be time to follow the money. Kovalchuk has one year left on his contract with SKA, which pays him more than $10 million annually. The Russian economy, you may have noticed, isn't in the best of shape these days. And even though SKA is owned by Gazprom, a huge conglomerate, $10 million is still a lot of money for one player.
Could it be that SKA is creating a crisis, here? Think about it: Kovalchuk is alienated by the scratches and the negative vibes coming from the front office in St. Petersburg. There have been reports that he is threatening to terminate his contract and return to North America, but does that not benefit SKA more, since they would be off the hook for his salary next year? While Kovalchuk is still an offensive threat, he is on the wrong side of 30 and producing less than he did the year prior (though only slightly). No way he makes $10 million in the NHL next season.
And if you want to get really cynical, SKA is the sixth seed in the conference; last year the squad was No. 1, so it's not surprising that Kovalchuk led them to the championship. The odds of a repeat are obviously lessened, particularly if this Kovy rift goes further south. So the timing for the controversy makes sense.
But even if Kovalchuk did return to North America, it wouldn't necessarily be straight-forward. After all, Kovy "retired" in 2013, much to the financial relief of the New Jersey Devils and according to folks I've spoken to, the rules and regulations on him returning are up to interpretation.
As a player who began the season in Europe, the CBA says he would have to pass through waivers - much like Evgeni Nabokov did when the Red Wings needed an emergency goaltender during the 2011-12 campaign. And if you recall, Nabokov never did get to Detroit: the New York Islanders claimed him off that waiver wire and he spent three years on Long Island, before finishing his career in Tampa Bay.
Another part of the CBA dictates that the 30 NHL owners must unanimously vote to allow a voluntarily retired player to return to the league, so would Kovy have to jump through that hoop? You can see why a Kovy-at-the-deadline landing is remote.
Would next year be a possibility? I suppose. But it strikes me as odd that a player so dedicated to his country would flake out like this. Kovalchuk has been a staple of Russia's national team for years. While the KHL and Russian Hockey Federation are two different bodies, it still seems like an odd play for him. It has always been difficult to parse what is truly going on in Russia from North America and this story is no different.
But there's no way this controversy is finished, that's for sure.