But today was an exception to that rule. Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils has announced his retirement from the NHL at just 30 years old, leaving 12 years and $77 million on the table. You can read the official team release from the Devils here.
When Ilya signed that deal back in 2010 and the Devils incurred all of the penalties they did, people assumed that Kovalchuk would never finish out the contract. No one could see Kovalchuk playing in the NHL until he was 44 or 45 years old. But it does not seem anyone saw this coming soon. What does it do?
For the immediate future, the biggest cog in the Devils offense is gone. Say what you will about this decision by Kovalchuk but he was a top player in the NHL. He could skate very well and had one of the very best shots in the league. It will be almost impossible for Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello to replace his presence on the ice at this point barring something drastic. Even worse, it seems the choice between Kovalchuk and Parise was the wrong choice at this point. With the Devils focusing on Ilya instead of Zach during a crucial time, Parise chose to go home to Minnesota. Now Kovalchuk has decided to go home to Russia.
..oh and don't forget all the pieces lost in getting/keeping Kovalchuk in the first place including Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, Niclas Bergfors, and two first round picks (one for the trade and one as a penalty for the obscene contract). We'll never know how things would have turned out for NJ had they stuck with Parise and never got involved with Kovalchuk.
However...while this situation is probably not very good right now there are some positives. The Devils are now out from under the yoke that was the Kovalchuk contract and even avoided the years where he would have made the most amount of money. Instead all they have to deal with is a cap recapture penalty of about $300,000/year for the next 12 years. It could have ended up much worse cap-wise having to actually have paid the full amounts or have a greater penalty for retiring later. Long-term, the Devils have a lot more options for signing players.
Another positive this may have is on the Devils' financial situation. The team has run into issues with refinancing and even delaying payments to players by weeks. Owner Jeff Vanderbeek now does not have to pay this large contract which could help the team financially. It may even help to the point that another investor would be interested in investing in the team. Worst case scenario for fans, but probably best for the league at this point, is if an investor buys the team and moves them somewhere they will be more successful financially.
One thing the NHL should be concerned about is if this will cause other players to leave. There are rumors abound that Kovalchuk will be signing a deal in the KHL for more money than any NHL can pay him. More than likely, he will become the highest paid hockey player in the world. The KHL has lacked star power when it comes to going up against the NHL but with a big name like Kovalchuk going over now there may be some more serious thoughts about players jumping over. Certainly this won't be an immediate impact but the thought that players may jump over to Russia for bigger rinks and dollars has to now seriously be in the back of every one's mind in the NHL.
The fallout from this will unfold over the next few years as the fate of the Devils occurs. The hockey world will probably never know the true nature of how this went down but it is obviously a big story not only in hockey but sports in general. Hockey is one of the few sports in the US that has to deal with attractive playing options outside the States. Will the KHL be used as leverage in contract negotiations in the NHL more often? Remains to be seen. What we do know is that a fanbase is seriously upset and the New Jersey Devils now have the most uncertain future in the NHL.