Life after Ilya Kovalchuk is not off to a barn-burning start for the New Jersey Devils.
They’re winless in their first four, heading into Friday’s game with the Calgary Flames, with a remade team featuring six new faces, most brought in as a response to Kovalchuk’s decision to forgo the final 12 years of a 15-year, $100-million (U.S.) contract and play in the Russia-based KHL.
Kovalchuk is the first elite Russian NHL player, still in his prime, still considered an elite contributor, to return to the KHL. But he’s part of a growing exodus. that has been going on for a half-dozen years.
Most of the key Russians – from Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Gonchar – went home last year to play in the KHL during the NHL lockout. But all drifted back in January. More importantly, all except Kovalchuk returned to North America this season, even though there were major financial incentives to stay in Russia.
Malkin is in the final year of his NHL contract, but instead of testing the waters overseas – and turning down a reported $15-million (U.S.) in tax-free dollars from his hometown team, Magnitogorsk Metallurg – he signed an eight-year, $76-million contract extension to stay with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Datsyuk, 37, wants to play one year in Russia before his career ends, but the Detroit Red Wings convinced him he has lots left in the tank and coaxed him to sign for three more years.
The NHL’s Russian content peaked in the 2000-01 season, when 89 players from the former Soviet Union played in the league, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. By 2007-08, the total was 45.
Last season it was down to 37, and so far this year only 24 players have played in the NHL, with a handful of others on rosters, but missing because of injury. (Alexei Emelin, Fedor Tyutin), in the minors (Dmitry Orlov), sitting on the end of the bench (Nikolai Khabibulin) or waiting for a pro opportunity (Ilya Bryzgalov). But even if – or when – they all get in, The number will likely top out at 30, the lowest in decades.
“The KHL is an unusual place,” said former NHL coach Paul Maurice, who spent last year coaching Magnitogorsk. “For an NHL player who’s on the fringe, and isn’t necessarily tied to North America by birth, there’s a real opportunity there.
“You can make a lot of money. It’s a shortened season. The league is definitely improving. There are some positives to going over there. Even in light of the Yaroslavl tragedy, it is viewed as an option for some of those guys – and for agents. And it will become easier for that class of player to go there.”
(In September of 2011, a jet carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed and killed all but one aboard, including the KHL squad’s Canadian-born head coach, Brad McCrimmon.)
Last season, in part because of the lockout, the KHL got a major boost because, for the first time since its inception, fans could see Russia’s biggest stars, live and in person.
Even after the NHL labour situation was resolved, Kovalchuk and Datsyuk lingered a few extra days to play in the KHL all-star game. Then, this summer, Kovalchuk decided to return permanently, after playing upwards of 25 minutes a game for the Devils and coach Peter DeBoer – and helping them get to the Stanley Cup final two years ago.
“I did not see it coming, but he’s always been a passionate guy about Russia – always,” DeBoer said. “If you were having a conversation about Russia, he was the first guy to let everyone know what a great country it was – and that was genuine. It reminded me really of how Canadians talk about our country.” I saw that right from day 1, when I started working with him. “It was one of those things that shock you when it happens, but when you look back, it’s not a surprise.”