Kovalchuk "Retires" - Shock, Anger, and the New Big Hole on the New Jersey Devils

April 27, 2013: The last game Ilya Kovalchuk played for the New Jersey Devils. I am still trying to grasp that sad fact. - Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Ilya Kovalchuk retired from the New Jersey Devils, but not from hockey as he'll likely sign with a KHL club for massive amounts of money. I recount my shock, anger, and touch on how there's not really anybody readily available that can bring what Kovalchuk brought to the team.

What?

OK, you know the what. Ilya Kovalchuk retired today. Yes, on July 11, 2013 Anno Domini, a 30-year old man set to make $11.6 million in salary as part of the remaining $77 million in the next 12 years named Ilya Kovalchuk retired. On this very afternoon, the press release came out stating that a forward who toiled on some awful Atlanta teams and then played on two seasons beset by bad luck across a New Jersey roster among other issues but still managed to put up 417 goals and 399 assists in 816 games would not play in the NHL anymore. Indeed, a winger who maybe wasn't going to put up 50 goals in a season again but threatened opponents with his world-class shot, fantastic pace and stamina, and ability to fire it in often and from anywhere called it a day. Today saw a competitor who forced his way through back pain of all kinds in the 2012 playoffs to be a the team's leader in playoff and regular season scoring on the team's way to the Stanley Cup Finals say, "I'm out." To me, this is unbelievable in the truest sense of the word.

My reaction at first hearing all of this is shock. Even writing about it hours after the news broke, my reaction largely is still summed up by the same single word Mike Stromberg wrote in the headline of the prior post: What? It doesn't pull in SEO real well, but what it lacked for getting traffic it more than makes up in sheer honesty and I would've done the same thing. What? I'll admit I added some other words after the "What." Those don't matter.

What does matter is that this is now reality. This is Big News in Sports. Even ESPN, a channel that doesn't cover hockey partially because they don't care much about it and partially because the league has a deal with a rival broadcaster, reported this as big news. The possibility of Kovalchuk ending his career before his 15-year contract would end was there; but who would have guessed it would have happened before the fourth season. Again, before getting paid at the peak of the contract. Not the tail, not the decline, but the peak. What logical reason would any athlete do that, especially for a team that took additional pain to try and pay him what he wanted?

That's easy: he can get paid more elsewhere. Thanks to this article at Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy, I read that Pavel Lysenko of SovSport has reported that SKA St. Petersburg will sign Kovalchuk to a ludicrous amount of money. Some "retirement," he just wanted to get out of this deal to play for someone else. That team should be familiar: Kovalchuk played for SKA St. Petersburg during the Incredibly Stupid Lockout of 2012. It's only my feeling but I'd have to think that Kovalchuk wouldn't be doing this "retirement" had there been a full NHL season. While the owners locked out the players, Kovalchuk got to be in a place where he was a star in his homeland, treated like a king, and have management promise the world to him for several months. As if burning about half of the season wasn't enough, the lockout played some role to see Kovalchuk represent New Jersey. Thanks, Bettman.

But this isn't Bettman's fault. It's not Jeff Vanderbeek's fault. It's not your fault or my fault. The blame truly falls one man and only man: Ilya Kovalchuk. He made the decision to give up. He made the decision to sign those voluntary retirement papers. I can't hate the hustle or a desire to be with his family, who I thought was in New Jersey by now. I can't hate homesickness, that's just a personal feeling. I am ticked off about Kovalchuk essentially saying, "Sorry, New Jersey, your commitment was massive and your fans fell in love with me, but I'd rather play in a weaker league and be the big fish in a small pond, so later." As a Devils supporter, this does feel like a smack in the face. I'm sure there are some in the NHL who aren't happy either. NHL players who jumped to the KHL tended to be those who couldn't stick in the league one way or another. Now, an actual star player with plenty left in the tank jumped over to that growing European league. It's a now at least little harder to discount them now. Just like it's at least a little hard to discount some media jerk questioning his commitment if only because I can't say they're now wrong.

As a result of this decision, some fans' and talking heads' reactions are understandably angry. Very angry. Very mean. Very emotional. I think they're right to be - to a point. The Devils faithful have spent all kinds of time, words, and though about #17. You don't do that for just some run of a mill player. Not even obsessive hardcore fans like myself put that much care about, say, Tim Sestito. Kovalchuk was a star when the Devils acquired him. Kovalchuk made the fans excited on a regular basis. Kovalchuk wouldn't always score but there was always a reasonable hope that he could snipe one from distance or drop a bomb through traffic or make an unaware defender look silly or go end to end to make something happen or force a turnover high on a PK and go up for a shorty or something. Kovalchuk has special talent and that was enough to make up for his game had flaws as did his usage. While the contract was likely going to be real bad in the future, the skills made it seem acceptable for now. The fans recognize this, I recognize this, you recognize this, and, most of all, the Devils recognize this.

I cannot stress this enough: the Devils put up a lot of money, term, and took penalties from the league to keep him around. Kovalchuk signed off on all that. Now it's over; that contract's done while the penalties still remain. All because a Russian club's offered to throw tons of cash at him and Kovalchuk chose SKA over NJ. He chose someone else over a team that did quite a bit to get and retain him. He chose a lesser league where he was already a star over being a star the richest, most watched, and most talented league in the world. Lou certainly and understandably comes across as angry in the NHL.com story about the "retirement." I would be too after all that. By the by, retirement should absolutely be in quotes since he's not done playing hockey at all - just for the Devils and in the best league in the world. We gave him our time, money, and feeling and that wasn't enough. If you're mad, you certainly have a right to be. With every trolling comment from other fans, journalists using hindsight to say "I was right," and the now growing subtext of the "Russian Factor," it's easy to get mad. I'm even more mad after writing all of that. (Though still mostly shocked.) It makes you wish you can demand life to shove these lemons up a very uncomfortable place. (I mean the nose or something like that.)

What you - and pay attention, journalists and talking heads, this is for you - don't have a right to do is to disavow Kovalchuk entirely. Don't re-write the past. Don't act as if Lou Lamoriello should have known this possibility back in 2010. Don't pretend this was an actual realistic scenario known to the public. Until this broke, there was no doubt that Kovalchuk would play in Newark in 2013-14. There was no open question out there. And there was no doubt the Devils got the Kovalchuk experience. He most definitely played with passion in New Jersey. His emphatic goal celebrations were as real as one could get. He learned to do more than just float in his own end. He would play well over 20 minutes over and over without public complaint. He would fire a lot of shots and they would mostly be good shots. He would consistently carry the puck into the offensive zone, which is far better than dumping it in. Any questions about his heart, desire, and so forth were buried in 2012 when he persevered through the playoffs. In between all the frustration about Kovalchuk playing hurt, he still ended up leading the team in scoring in the entire postseason and played a considerable role in knocking out the Second Rate Rivals and Our Hated Rivals. That was after a regular season where he was the fifth leading scorer in the NHL. And last season, well, who else on the team was scoring? I'm not going to be so mad at the guy who tried real hard, still putting up a lot of shots. Anyone who says that Kovalchuk didn't put in a full effort in New Jersey or he didn't show us all of his skill must have forgot or didn't watch the games. You want to be mad about him leaving, fine. Be mad, let it all out here and there. But don't lie to me and tell me he sucked because he certainly didn't.

Yet, anger, frustration, sadness, and other feelings are all valid due to what this means for this coming season. Even with the moves already made, the Devils' offense was still going to hinge quite a bit on Kovalchuk and Elias. Mike figured as much when projecting how much the Devils may score next season. The hope I had was that the team's shooting percentage wouldn't be in the gutter and for Kovalchuk, that would mean quite a lot of goals from him. That would help out the team. Obviously, that's not happening. Worse, there isn't a replacement for Kovalchuk out there. Oh, sure, there are players who are far better in possession than Kovalchuk and can do more on the ice than be an offensive dynamo. Players like Mikhail Grabovski and (maybe) Damien Brunner. The Devils certainly now have the cap space to go after another free agent or make a big trade. I now expect them to use that space to do something. The recapture cost is just a drop in the bucket for while, so that's no big deal. The Devils' cap situation will look better in the long run. They don't have to suffer a $6.67 million cap hit when Kovalchuk's declining in his mid-30s. They're still a strong possession team and Kovalchuk was never all that good at driving play at evens. I'll even say that the Devils could be just fine in a few years. Maybe even possibly hopefully this year. Yet...

Who's going to fire the puck on this team? Who's leading the power play effort? Most importantly, who's going to score goals on this team?

We must accept that no one currently available in free agency can shoot as much as he did and shoot like he did from all over the offensive zone. No one shot as much as David Clarkson, and Kovalchuk out-did him in shots per game. There isn't prolific shooter and point-machine like Kovalchuk on the market. That player certainly isn't in the system right now. The Devils were already lacking for shots and scoring to begin with, so I think they really do need a scorer like Kovalchuk. But again, that guy doesn't appear to be there. As much as I like Grabovski and Brunner, they're not big scorers. Trying to get one in a trade could prove costly, perhaps requiring assets the Devils don't have. That's no surprise, there are few in the world that shoots and creates shots like Kovalchuk. My point is that even if Kovalchuk did this a few weeks ago, it wouldn't matter because there would have been no one available to sign that does what he does. Having that space then wouldn't have led to a solution. And no, overpaying Clarkson and Clowe wouldn't be a viable one. It's just one more reason to be irked by all this: the 2013-14 Devils just got worse today. There's a few good forwards left, but the hole just created won't likely be fully filled.

Maybe it'll all turn out right. This wouldn't be the first team to succeed even though they did/could not score a whole lot. But as of right now, I'm not all that confident. Long term, this will probably work out. Short term: yikes. You may hate the way he left, but that big hole is just there all the same.

That's enough part-emotion, part-attempting-to-be-rational-but-mostly-ending-up-rambling about today's stunning news. I imagine that Lou's next move is going to come rather soon. I just hope it's not a hasty, rushed one. Lastly, I want to emphasize that the sun will come up tomorrow. Matt will have a timeline of sorts, I'll have a post on an entirely different topic up on Saturday and doing an AMA at the Devils' Reddit, and Sunday will have...something, probably not Brodeur's goals in review from April (I think you can wait one more week, it's a long offseason anyway). Just as the Devils must move on, so will we. Thank you for reading.

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