Kovalchuk reportedly has been thinking about this move since the 2004-05 lockout when he spent the year playing in Russia. Understandably, Kovalchuk cited that this was something he had thought about "for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia" and that "[Lamoriello] was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me". There were reports that he wished to finish the season with St. Petersburg after the lockout, but that action would have breached his NHL contract. Ultimately, Kovalchuk returned to New Jersey after having a major impact in the KHL, putting up 48 points in 36 games. One has to wonder if this last lockout was the straw that broke the camel's back.
But, again, something just seems off. Why would a man who was just 27 years-old sign a fifteen-year contract that essentially handcuffed Lou Lamoriellos ability to re-sign an impact player like Zach Parise if his ultimate goal was to walk away after just three years? Why would a man at age 30 leave $77 million on the table to head home to Russia?
Again, I respect Kovalchuk's decision to look after his family and move his children closer to where Kovalchuk was born and raised, but one has to wonder if there wasn't something going on behind the scenes where Kovalchuk decided enough was enough. He would do the honorable thing in trying to make this season work, and then call it quits after the season just to show that he honored his contract rather than staying in Russia to play out his days. It appears there is some evidence to that degree.
On January 10, 2013, he told Slava Malamud of the Russian publication Sport Express, "I want to stay in St. Petersburg but I have contractual obligations in the NHL, which will be hard to break." So there's that, but there was also this tweet from Malamud that seemed to indicate that the groundwork may already have been laid before Kovalchuk returned to the NHL: "Kovalchuk added that he will talk with SKA leadership and 'hopefully, everything will be decided then'". While that seemed innocent enough, Malamud then posted this tweet that seemed to tie everything off quite nicely:
While Kovalchuk may have been playing in New Jersey, it seems his heart never left St. Petersburg. His retirement from the NHL is exactly that - he will not return to the NHL in the future in order to play out his career in the KHL. Everything wrapped up fairly nicely for Kovalchuk.
Sport-Express reported that Kovalchuk and SKA had the terms of his future deal agreed upon back in January. This was a prearranged move.
— Slava Malamud (@SlavaMalamud) July 12, 2013
The part that's harder to fathom is that when SKA St. Petersburg signs Kovalchuk to play for them going forward, the rumor is that he'll be paid between $10 million and $20 million per season! If you factor in his age of 30 and figure that he can probably play, barring injury, until he's 40, he'll bank nearly $100 million in tax-free money! If you had the option for a taxed $77 million over twelve years or a tax-free $100 million over ten years, I'm not sure anyone would opt for the former deal over the latter.
The KHL is beginning to look like the WHA in a sense in that they are generally overpaying for players to come play for them while the competition in the league is lower than what is seen in the NHL. In this case, like in the 1970s, the superstar players who opt to make the jump will ultimately win big with the money being thrown at them by KHL teams. The KHL wins by having marquee stars playing in every arena across Europe. NHL teams and NHL fans will lose as they won't be able to see the world's best players in their league any longer and playing for their teams any longer.
In the end, everything worked out nicely for Kovalchuk in terms of moving home with his family and making some immense bank in doing so. Only one question remains now that players know how to escape their long-term deals for greener pastures: who jumps next?
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!