KHL still hoping to lure Kovalchuk back to Russia

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - An offer to return to Russia and play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) remains on the table for high-scoring forward Ilya Kovalchuk, league president Alexander Medvedev said on Wednesday.

Kovalchuk, who signed a record 17-year $102 million deal with the New Jersey Devils last month, is back on the open market after the NHL rejected the contract on the grounds that it was a blatant attempt to circumvent the league's salary cap.

Signing the 27-year-old Kovalchuk would represent a major coup for the KHL, which is growing increasingly bold in its pursuit of NHL players.

"Ilya knows that our proposal is still on the table," Medvedev told reporters during a break in the World Hockey Summit. "If he decided to play in Russia it would be an event.

"He's a top five player in the NHL and if he will decide to come back it will be a breakthrough."

The Devils and Kovalchuk are currently attempting to rework a deal that would meet with the NHL's approval but media outlets in New York were reporting on Wednesday that a second proposal put forward by New Jersey had also been rejected.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman denied the reports but hinted that the league had been in discussions with the Devils about the possible framework for a contract.

"In order for a contract to be rejected, there would have to be a signed contract submitted," said Bettman. "There has not been a signed contract submitted."

With a new season approaching and negotiations dragging on, the delay has opened the door for Medvedev, who also owns a KHL team.

The Russian billionaire told reporters he had received a call from Kovalchuk's agent and would be calling him back later on Wednesday.

Taken by the Atlanta Thrashers with the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, Kovalchuk has established himself as one of the NHL's top snipers, scoring 30 or more goals in seven of his eight seasons, including 52 goals twice.

He has a total 338 goals and 642 points from 621 career games.

(Editing by Ian Ransom)