Or... he's bolting for the KHL and a deal may have been in the works long enough that the KHL wanted to announce it Thursday.
Look, the actual move shouldn't surprise anyone. The timing? Well, that's another story. But the move itself may very well have been in the works since Kovalchuk signed his 15-year contract three summers ago. There was always talk that Kovalchuk would "retire" toward the end of his deal, particularly when his base salary drops to $4 million in 2019, and head back to the KHL. It was a way for the Devils to get out of the cap hit for the final six seasons while making sure Kovalchuk got a nice, juicy payday back home in Russia to close out his career.
Except all of that got shot to pieces Thursday. Why, you might ask? Well, for the same reason most professional athletes change teams all of a sudden: Dolla, dolla bills, ya'll!
But wait, you say, Kovalchuk still had $77 million coming to him over the next 12 years! That's enough dolla, dolla bills to possibly own a third of the Devils right now. Except the KHL, bankrolled by oil and natural gas billionaires, plays by a different set of rules -- especially for a native son who immediately becomes the biggest name to ever play in the Russian league without there being a lockout. Take it away, Russian media!
Lysenkov reports that Kovalchuk will be joining SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, the team for which he played during the NHL lockout. There’s where he will “become the most-paid player in the world,” according to SovSport.As Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy points out, if Alexander Radulov can bank $9 million a year from the KHL, those billionaires will rewrite the league's constitution for a player of Kovalchuk's caliber. Sure, $20 million a year for Kovalchuk -- with a large chunk up front -- might blow up the league's salary scale, but as Russian reporter Slava Malamud points out, it doesn't even matter.
How much? He speculates that if it was “a $15-20 million per year (at the taxation in 13%)” it would not be a surprise. (No word if that's on the KHL cap or some of it off the books.)
On top of that, Puck Daddy’s Dmitry Chesnokov believes SKA could front-load the contract and pay Kovalchuk an enormous sum of money up front.
Jeff Marek of Sportsnet asked earlier if Kovalchuk will do for the KHL what Bobby Hull did for the World Hockey Association. If you remember, Hull left the NHL for the WHA, a startup league, in the 1970s after dominating the NHL for the better part of the 1960s. The WHA couldn't buy the kind of instant credibility Hull would give them -- until it did with a deal that included a $1 million signing bonus (IN THE 1970s!). The KHL just did the same thing, buying Kovalchuk -- one of the NHL's best players, although not as big of a star as Hull was at the time -- away from their rival and more powerful league. In essence, they did with Kovalchuk what Jim Balsillie tried to do with the Phoenix Coyotes in bankruptcy court -- use money to circumvent the league's bylaws and enrich themselves in the process.
The worst part is we really should've seen this coming. When Kovalchuk fought leaving the KHL at the end of the lockout, we all joked about him staying while also noting, "There's no way he's leaving $88 million on the table." Except, if you go back and look at some of his quotes at the end of the lockout, you can basically tell he didn't want to come back -- be it for money or family reasons.
The truth is Kovalchuk didn't stay in Russia because contractually he couldn't do it. That is, until he and the KHL bosses found a loophole in the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, Kovalchuk's NHL contract and the IIHF's transfer rules. Kovalchuk may very well return to the NHL someday, but for now he'll head home through the gaping hole he just created. The bigger question for me is whether the NHL finds a way to close the loop before any other big-name Russians get the same offer as Kovalchuk.