NHL New Jersey Devils

Ilya Kovalchuk and 4 Other Russian Stars Who Left for the KHL

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Ilya Kovalchuk and 4 More Russian Stars Who Left for the KHL

James Guillory- USA TODAY sports

The recent news that New Jersey Devils superstar Ilya Kovalchuk will be retiring from the NHL and returning to Russia has many fans concerned about the fate of their own favorite Russian players. Kovalchuk was just three years into a record breaking 15-year, $100-million contract. He will be leaving with $77 million remaining on his contract.

Whatever his reasoning may be, his unexpected retirement has left many fans sour. Those who leave to play in their native country cite a variety of reasons: homesickness, concern for their families, inability to adjust to a foreign country and money are just a few. Kovalchuk himself stated that he simply wants to return home to be with his loved ones, but reports of a $20-million per year contract with the KHL could be influencing his decision making as well.

Some believe that while playing in the NHL, Kovalchuk was one of the best, and a contract with the KHL will make him the best in his league. All factors considered, it is difficult to fault the man for his decision. He was playing in a foreign country, enduring a language barrier while thousands of miles away from his loved ones. If money was a factor in his decision, one would be hard pressed to find a professional athlete who would not return to his home country for double the salary.

While Devils fans attempt to cope with their loss, it must be realized that while Kovalchuk is the biggest star to abandon the NHL and play for the KHL, he is not the first Russian to do so, and certainly not the last.

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Vladimir Krutov

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Forward Vladimir Krutov played just one season with the Vancouver Canucks, registering 11 goals and 23 assists in 61 games. Internationally, he dominated opposing players, playing against the United States in the 1980 Winter Olympics, but cited homesickness and weight problems for his lackluster NHL performance. He returned to the KHL after just one season abroad

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Nikolay Zherdev

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The Columbus Blue Jackets fourth overall pick in 2003, Nikolay Zherdev alternated between the KHL and NHL for much of his career. In 2011, after a brief stint with the Philadelphia Flyers, Zherdev returned to the KHL for good. Throughout his six-season NHL career, Zherdev registered 261 points in 421 games.

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Maxim Afinogenov

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Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1997, Maxim Afinogenov played nine seasons with the Sabres and one season with the Atlanta Thrashers. In his final season in the NHL, Afinogenov notched 24 goals and 37 assists, without missing a single game. Despite his success, he signed a five-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg in 2010

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Alexander Radulov

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Alexander Radulov signed a three-year contract with the Nasvhille Predators in 2006, tallying 44 goals in his first two seasons alone. With one year remaining on his contract, Radulov signed a contract with the KHL. Despite condemnation from the Predators, Radulov played a three-year stint in the KHL, before returning to the NHL in 2012 for the Predators playoff run. The Predators lost in the second round to the Phoenix Coyotes. His contract was not renewed, and Radulov returned to the KHL. He currently stands as the KHL's all-time leading scorer with 322 points in 258 games.

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Ilya Kovalchuk

Ed Mulholland- USA TODAY sports

Kovalchuk was drafted first overall in the 2001 NHL draft by the Atlanta Thrashers. After eight seasons, he was traded to the New Jersey Devils, inking a massive 15-year, $100-million contract. On July 11, 2013, after three years with the Devils, Kovalchuk retired at the age of 30, returning home to Russia to play in the KHL. Kovalchuk tallied 816 points in 816 games, averaging exactly one point-per-game during his NHL career. He ranks fifth all-time in points amongst Russian NHL players.