Half a decade after returning to Russia to play in the KHL, it looks like Ilya Kovalchuk is primed for an NHL comeback.
Kovalchuk, who signed with the Atlanta Thrashers prior to the 2001 season and played through the 2012-13 season, ending his career with the Devils, will reportedly be signing a 2-3 year contract with the New York Rangers, per Sport-Express' Igor Eronko.
Kovalchuk's return means big things for the Rangers,head coach Alain Vigneault after New York missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10 with a lowly 77 points. The Rangers , and Kovalchuk will apparently be a key part of the new look for next season.
Cap space is hardly an issue for the Rangers, who will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows by signing a player that will be 35 on Sunday and that's been away from the league for five years. Although the money of the deal is unknown, Kovalchuk can help the Rangers hit their floor. Signing on a pricey player would be strange for any other team in a rebuild, but Kovalchuk can help their long-term plan, as they're estimated by Spotrac to have just under $9 million in cap space heading into the offseason. Kovalchuk can also act as a mentor for the Rangers' young team.
During his time in the NHL, Kovalchuk was prolific, scoring 417 goals and racking up 399 assists for the Thrashers and Devils. Towards the end of his NHL tenure, the Devils' contractual practices toward Kovalchuk were met with scrutiny.
When he became a free agent in 2010, Kovalchuk re-signed with the Devils on a 17-year, $102 million deal. When that deal was struck down by NHL arbitrator Richard Bloch upon the request of the union, he was signed to a 15-year, $100 million deal, and the Devils were penalized for trying to circumvent the salary cap. They were fined $3 million, lost a third-round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and a first-round pick at any point in the next four years. The league later gave them the last pick in the third round of the Entry Draft as a compromise.
When Kovalchuk left after the 2012-13 lockout to play for SKA Saint Petersburg in the KHL and never came back, Devils fans were less than thrilled -- especially considering what they gave up for him. Kovalchuk signed a four-year contract with SKA Saint Petersburg less than a week after he retired from the NHL, with 12 years left on his contract with the Devils. Money was speculated as the main motivator for his move to Russia. In the KHL, Kovalchuk scored 107 goals and picked up 157 assists. He won the Gagarin Cup (the KHL's Stanley Cup) in 2015 and 2017.
Kovalchuk has also played in every Winter Olympics since 2002, most recently playing for the Olympic Athletes of Russia in February. The team won gold, and Kovalchuk tied Kirill Kaprizov for the team lead in goals at five, and Kaprizov and Team USA's Ryan Donato for the tournament high.
Devils fans definitely aren't going to like Kovalchuk now. Playing for a team in the same division as them won't be looked at kindly. Kovalchuk may not be on the level of Tie Domi or Sean Avery in terms of Devils' fans ire, but don't expect to hear a lot of cheers in his return to the Prudential Center. The Rangers are the Devils' biggest rival, and with the way he left, for Devils fans this is a match made in heaven -- or hell.
Next year is already shaping up to be really fun.