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Why Ilya Kovalchuk's case is unique

7/12/2013

Slava Kozlov was the guy you went to if you wanted the truth about Ilya Kovalchuk. When Kovalchuk was a young star in the NHL with the then-Atlanta Thrashers, Kozlov was the wise veteran teammate who had Kovalchuk's complete respect and who minced no words when it came to analyzing the forward's game.

If he thought Kovalchuk wasn't focused enough on defense, he said so. If he thought Kovalchuk needed to do more for the team to win games, he let him know.

They were tight, and nobody knew him better.

In January 2009, Kovalchuk was named captain of the Thrashers. He was given a leadership position with the franchise that drafted him, and there was talk of a long-term deal that would keep him in Atlanta for the next decade -- assuming, of course, the team stayed.

That season, he was the only Thrashers representative on the All-Star team, his third career All-Star Game at just 25. Things were looking pretty good for him and his position in the game.

Then, during a conversation I had with Kozlov, a dose of reality was injected.

"I can only see one problem right now. The KHL. They want him badly," Kozlov said when we chatted about his talented teammate in 2009. "Lots of [Russian] teams want to sign him."

That was more than four years ago and the notion seemed absurd. Back then, NHL stars entering their prime didn't leave for Russia. That was the league for players on the verge of retirement or those who couldn't quite hack it in the NHL.

But Kozlov knew there was a real pull there -- on both sides. Kovalchuk was as big, if not bigger, than any other Russian hockey player in his native country. He was always the star of the Russian team that played in the world championships; the Thrashers' annual ineptitude gave him an entire spring to play for his country.

And inevitably, when it came time to negotiate a contract, the threat to return to Russia was always there. It was there when Kovalchuk hit the market in 2010, driving up the price after it appeared the New Jersey Devils and a lukewarm effort by the Los Angeles Kings were his only shots at big money in free agency. It was even there in 2005, when Kovalchuk was a restricted free agent and his camp was negotiating a deal (and the KHL didn't even exist yet).

When the most recent lockout ended, Kovalchuk wanted to stay at home. He told a Russian reporter that he wanted to read the new CBA agreement before making a decision whether to return to New Jersey.

To play at home has been a legitimate option for Kovalchuk from just about the moment he arrived in North America, but it didn't make Thursday's news any less stunning -- a 30-year-old leaving the NHL and $77 million on the table.

But it does make it less likely that we're seeing the start of some leaguewide trend. Nashville forward Sergei Kostitsyn recently left the Predators to play for the KHL, and they happily terminated his contract, which had one year remaining. The Devils are expected to terminate Kovalchuk's contract as well, saving millions of dollars and potential penalties because of the cap recapture clause. It's a huge short-term loss for the Devils, but long term? It's not the worst thing ever to happen to the franchise.

And according to an NHL source, if Kovalchuk changed his mind and wanted to return to the league, the Devils still would have his rights.

Some teams wouldn't be so willing to let their Russian players leave under similar circumstances. But the league isn't fighting this because the Devils aren't fighting it.

That might not be the case if, say, Evgeni Malkin decided to sign with the KHL in the morning. In other high-profile cases, there wouldn't be a mutual voiding of the contract; there would be a fight.

For now, this appears to be an isolated case. At least that has to be the hope, especially for teams built around a standout Russian player.

When I asked one general manager Thursday evening if teams should be concerned, he admitted uncertainty.

"I don't know," he said. "I would suspect this is a unique situation."

Another GM said the bigger impact will be in the draft, where he'd be less likely to use a top pick on a Russian player after Kovalchuk's decision to leave for the KHL. And if teams aren't using top picks on the best Russian players, there's even less motivation for them to come to the NHL. The NHL might not be losing its biggest stars now, but the eventual problem might be that the stars never go to North America in the first place.

Kovalchuk is certainly unique among today's star Russians. He left the team that drafted him because he wanted to win, something he couldn't do alone. Before he was traded, he watched teammates like Marc Savard, Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa take off, leaving him alone as the biggest name to carry the team. And at the time, the Atlanta ownership situation was as unstable as any in the league, with the ownership group searching desperately for a buyer.

So Kovalchuk chose New Jersey as the place to chase a Stanley Cup. It was a franchise of stability led by one of the most respected men in hockey, and it was a franchise that typically made the playoffs, something that happened just once in Atlanta.

But in parts of four seasons with the Devils, he's played for three coaches. He's watched stars Zach Parise and David Clarkson leave the organization, and another star, Martin Brodeur, is on his way out. Again, he was expected to carry a team this season.

The ownership mess in New Jersey has to look familiar to a player who saw firsthand how destructive to a franchise that instability can be. In June, the New York Post reported that the Devils missed an interest payment, risked defaulting on their loan, and were also receiving financial assistance from the NHL.

The team Kovalchuk is leaving now doesn't look all that different from the one he left before, which might be another reason he's off to the KHL.