Philadelphia, PA – It's been a week since Ilya Kovalchuk dropped a bombshell by splitting with the New Jersey Devils, but his decision to leave the NHL and $77 million behind has only begun to affect the hockey world.
The sniper's departure is the realization of a recurring NHL nightmare, one where talented Russian hockey players pull up stakes and head home to play in the Kontinental Hockey League. Thanks to Kovalchuk, what was previously considered a potential worst case scenario is now a reality.
At just 30 years of age, Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL last Thursday and already has signed a four-deal with the SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL.
His exodus leaves a huge hole in the New Jersey Devils' lineup for next season, but that's only where the dominoes begin to fall. In fact, Kovalchuk's decision to walk out on the cash-strapped Devils actually could be good news for the franchise in the long run.
After all, Kovalchuk officially retired from the NHL, meaning the remainder of his contract is void, and due to his age, the Devils only owe an annual $250,000 recapture penalty through the life of his contract, a figure that counts against the salary cap. If Kovalchuk was 35 years or older when he made this decision, the entire average annual value (AAV) of his contract would have counted against the cap.
Still, NHL general managers who aren't named Lou Lamoriello are likely less than pleased at this recent development.
Prior to Kovalchuk, the biggest name to snub the NHL for a spot in the KHL was former Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov, who refused to honor the final year of his contract with the Preds when he bolted to Russia in 2008. No offense to Radulov, who has gone on to win two KHL scoring titles, but he is hardly Kovalchuk -- the first Russian player ever selected No. 1 overall in the NHL Entry Draft -- in terms of playing ability or star power.
Still, when Radulov left the North American game behind it sent shockwaves through the NHL that are still reverberating today. When hockey people speak of the "Russian Factor," it's usually not long before Radulov is mentioned. However, now that Kovalchuk has followed in Radulov's footsteps he has taken over the role of putting a face to the fear of Russian players.
The "Russian Factor" is a term that's thrown around quite about at the annual NHL Entry Draft. Basically, it means NHL teams largely ignore players from Russia because of the perceived risk involved. Teams are scared guys will use the NHL to boost their profile and then jump ship to the KHL.
So far that fear has proven to be unfounded, but it's still had a profound impact on the draft. Last month, only eight of the 211 players selected were born in Russia. After Kovalchuk's decision to walk away from the remaining 12 years of his contract with the Devils, the number could shrink even more come the 2014 draft.
In an interview from earlier this week with Pavel Lysenkov of SovSport.ru Kovalchuk said his reasons for leaving the NHL were all about comfort.
"I'm not going to the moon, China or Japan. I'm going home, where my mother, sister, my friends live. I'm more comfortable in Russia," Kovalchuk said in the Russian-language interview that was translated by Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo! Sports.
Time will only tell if Kovalchuk's exodus for the KHL is a sign of things to come, or if it was simply was a case of one man opting to play hockey in the country he calls home. One thing is sure, if Radulov's departure caused an uneasiness in the NHL front offices, Kovalchuk's decision to leave for the KHL could create a full-on panic when it comes to Russian players.
Perhaps, the worst thing to come out of Kovy's jump to Russia is that it could galvanize the extremists in the "Russian Factor" debate, people who routinely, and unfairly, cast Russian players as lazy or not tough enough -- physically or mentally -- to hack it in the NHL.
It gives extra ammunition to blowhards like Don Cherry, a man who doesn't really need any added motivation to take shots at Russians, or European players in general.
Cherry, of course, unloaded on Kovalchuk after he announced he was switching leagues, saying things like "if you don't have any honor, it's a pretty good deal" and "the Russians and the foreign people can have their cake and eat it too."
By choosing to leave the NHL for Russia in the prime of his career, Kovalchuk has helped feed trolls like Cherry who want nothing more than to have their theories about Russian players proven correct.
Even if choosing the KHL was a decision based on comfort and being close to the people he loves -- a choice we all should be able to understand -- Kovalchuk opting to return home is going to make it even more difficult for Russian players to convince NHL teams they're worth the risk.
Kovalchuk was once a shining example proving Russian players were worth the risk for NHL teams. It's sad to see him become a cautionary tale about why they aren't.