Relax-ski! Kovalchuck’s Departure Unlikely to Hurt the NHL

By: Michael Abitabilo

In a shocking blow to the New Jersey Devils, star forward Ilya Kovalchuk announced his “retirement” yesterday. I use the air quotes, of course, because having recently turned 30, Kovalchuk isn’t actually retiring from hockey, but instead is walking away from the final 12 years and $77 million of his historic (and notorious) contract to play professional hockey in Russia – reportedly for SKA Saint Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). But despite the (delightfully) crippling impact Kovalchuk’s decision will have on the Devils, his retirement is unlikely to have a significant long-term impact on the NHL.

The KHL was formed in 2008. At the time, there was some buzz that it could pose a legitimate threat to the then struggling NHL as the premier hockey league in the world.  For a variety of reasons, though, that never happened. The KHL has been hindered by reports of corruptionfinancial troubles and concerns regarding player safety. Meanwhile, the popularity of the NHL has steadily increased in the United States. For these and other reasons, the best players in the world have stayed in the NHL. Until now. Kovalchuk is the first elite superstar to take his talents to Moscow in the midst of his prime. Sure, Jaromir Jagr played in the KHL for three seasons before returning to the NHL in 2011, but Jagr was 35 when he left to play for Avangard Omsk. (More on what Jagr’s fantastic career could have been some other time.)

Let’s not underestimate the significance of this move on a micro level. Ilya Kovalchuk is not Alexander Radulov – a promising young player who showed flashes of brilliance in 154 games in the NHL before returning to the KHL. Kovalchuk is a bona fide star who was heading for the Hall of Fame. In his first 12 NHL seasons, Kovalchuk has scored 417 goals in 816 games – a historically impressive average of .51 goals per game. Even if Kovalchuk only played 10 of the final 12 seasons on his contract, and even if his goals per game average over that span dipped from over .5 down to .3, Kovalchuk could have approached 650 career goals, which would put him in the top 15 all-time. If he played the full 12 seasons and averaged 30 goals in each? His 777 goals would rank third in NHL history, only behind a few guys named Gretzky and Howe.

So the question becomes, why did Kovalchuk leave, and more importantly, will he be a trailblazer or an outlier? As to the first question, one need not be an intrepid journalist to figure out the answer. During the (2012) lockout, Kovalchuk played for SKA Saint Petersburg and scored 42 points in 36 games. When the lockout was lifted, Kovalchuk was one of the last players to return to North America. Even then, Russian officials predicted Kovalchuk “could soon come back to the KHL.” Having been at the center of a very public controversy when he first signed his contract with the New Jersey Devils, Kovalchuk was ultimately forced to accept less money than his team thought he was worth in order for the Devils to comply with the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement.  Recent reports of the Devils’ dire financial straits probably didn’t help the situation.  Oh, and don’t forget, under the most recently negotiated CBA, a significant portion of all players’ paychecks is put in escrow until the NHL and the NHLPA determine the appropriate division of hockey related revenue at the end of the seasonughhhhohhmygoddborrrringggg. Anyway, contrast that to the KHL, where Kovalchuk will reportedly earn $20 million per season playing for SKA Saint Petersburg about 300 miles from where he grew up.

On a macro level, though, is it time to panic for the NHL? Probably not.  Kovalchuk’s departure is significant, certainly, but is unlikely to start a mass exodus.  Thanks in part to the aforementioned financial troubles, the KHL recently implemented a salary cap of 1.1 billion rubles. While that sounds like it would be enough to buy all the jewels and children in Russia, it equates to about $33.5 million, which is roughly half of the salary cap imposed on NHL teams. Simply put, KHL teams won’t be able to pay players as much as NHL teams on average. More importantly, while the KHL allows teams to waive one player’s salary from the salary cap (hence Kovalchuk’s $20 million), that player must be eligible to play for the Russian national team. Would elite Russian players like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin consider leaving the NHL to double or triple their salaries while playing in front of their friends and family? Maybe, but the bottom line is that the elite North American and other non-Russian players will most likely stay in the NHL for the long haul. That, combined with the allure of Lord Stanley’s Cup, will ensure that the NHL remains the preeminent place to play professional hockey for years to come.

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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and is thrilled that #17 in red won’t be ripping slapshots at Henrik Lundqvist for the next 12 years.