NHL Rumors: New Jersey Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk Heads to KHL, Which Teammate is Next?

By Steve Palumbo
Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk signed with SKA St. Petersburg of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. The star forward is the latest NHL player to head overseas during the lockout, joining other notables such as Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk), Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk (Ak-Bars Kazan)  and  Philadelphia’s Ruslan Fedotenko (HC Donbass), just to name a few.

Kovalchuk has played in the KHL with Ak-Bars Kazan as recently as the last lockout. In 53 KHL games, he scored 19 goals and added 23 helpers.

If and when the NHL season resumes, the Devils leading goal-scorer would be allowed to walk away and return to New Jersey. There is a bit of irony in this whole situation. SKA St. Petersburg is the same team that tried to lure Kovalchuk to the KHL with buckets of money when he became an unrestricted free agent in 2010–until the Devils circumvented the salary cap to keep him in the States.

Kovalchuk is the only member of the Devils to bolt for a foreign league so far. Many of the team’s core players are in a “wait and see” mode. If the lockout looks like it’s going to drag on for months, that could change, though.

So far only Kovalchuk and defenseman Marek Zidlicky have made the decision to play elsewhere. Zidlicky will play for HC Kladno of the Czech league.

I can understand why some of the New Jersey players would be hesitant to head overseas. During the last lockout in 2004, veteran forward Patrik Elias contracted Hepatitis A while playing in Russia. Elias lost 30 pounds as he battled the persistent flu-like symptoms, which nearly cost him his career.

Kovalchuk is expected to play in SKA St. Petersburg’s next game on Sunday at UHC Dynamo. Until the NHL starts to make any progress with the labor negotiations, I guess I’ve found myself a new favorite team.

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