- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN New York Writer
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New Jersey Devils superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk has decided to walk away from the final 12 years and $77 million remaining on his contract, choosing instead to retire from the NHL, the team announced Thursday.
"This goes back to the lockout, and prior to coming back, his thought process of staying in Russia was there," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said in a conference call Thursday. "As you know, he was here a little late [getting back after the lockout was lifted]. Then there was no conversation whatsoever throughout the year about it. Then it resurfaced and his desire was to retire from the NHL, and the only way he could do that was to sign his voluntary retirement papers, which he did."
According to multiple Russian media outlets, Kovalchuk will play for SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League next season.
"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia," Kovalchuk said in a statement released by the team. "Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me."
Lamoriello confirmed that Kovalchuk's contract is now void.
As a result of the 30-year-old's retirement, the Devils will have to pay a cap restructure penalty of about $300,000 until 2024-25 -- when the contract was set to expire -- NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on TSN Radio. That is because the cap advantage on Kovalchuk's contract was approximately $4 million over the first three seasons of his 15-year, $100 million deal, which was signed in 2010, according to Daly.
The stunning departure of Kovalchuk, considered one of the top players in the world, leaves the Devils with a massive void on their top line and power-play unit. Long term, however, it gives them a lot more cap space with which to work.
If Kovalchuk had decided to announce his retirement sooner, the Devils would've been able to pursue an elite player when free agency began.
"I can't worry about timing right now. It is what it is, and you just go forward," said Lamoriello, who added that Kovalchuk's departure would not put the team in a significant hole. "Right now, we just have to take a step back to go forward, and we'll just re-evaluate what our options are and do the best we can, but we'll be ready come September."
Lamoriello would not divulge any talks he had with Kovalchuk, who is not in Russia right now.
"Any conversation I had with Ilya is personal," the GM said.
Lamoriello said he wasn't surprised.
"I am never surprised by anything that happens in this game today," he said.
The Devils tried to sign Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract, but the NHL rejected the pact because it circumvented the league's salary cap. The team was forced to forfeit a first-round pick as a result when it changed the terms of Kovalchuk's deal.
Lamoriello wouldn't discuss whether the team will try to recover that pick, which it'll be forced to give up in 2014.
Kovalchuk scored 417 goals and registered 816 points in 816 career games with the Devils and Atlanta Thrashers. He was the first Russian player selected with the No. 1 overall pick when he was taken by Atlanta in 2001. He was acquired by the Devils in February 2010, then signed his revised massive contract seven months later.
Kovalchuk has represented Russia at three Winter Olympic Games, nine world championships, one world junior championship and the 2004 World Cup. He played in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg during the recent lockout and was selected the team's captain. He participated in the KHL All-Star Game before returning to New Jersey for the lockout-shortened, 48-game regular season, a campaign in which the Devils missed the playoffs.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk announced his sudden retirement Thursday.