Ilya Kovachuk sent shock waves though the NHL by retiring from the New Jersey Devils so he could finish his career in Russia.
He walked away from the last 12 years and final $77 million on his contract. The Devils signed off on his departure, but Kovalchuk gutted the franchise with his awkwardly timed decision.
In the process of doing so made every general manager employing top Russian players a bit more nervous.
The Kontinental Hockey League is becoming a worthy rival of the NHL in global competition. It is expanding well beyond the borders of Russia to Belarus, Croatia, Czech Republic, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovakia and Ukraine.
Russian billionaire businessman Gennady Timchenko bought Hartwall Arena in Helskinki and prompted the Finnish club Jokerit would join the KHL for the 2014-15 season.
The KHL offers competitive pay, bigger ice surfaces and more player-friendly scheduling than the NHL. When Gary Bettman shut down the NHL last season, the KHL brought many Russia stars home and made a favorable impression on them.
Kovalchuk, 30, served as captain of the powerful SKA St. Petersburg team during the lockout. He will return to that role after leaving the Devils and he figures to wear the “C” for Russia during the Olympics in Sochi.
“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia,” Kovalchuk explained in a statement. “Though I decided to return this past season, (Devils GM) Lou (Lamoriello) was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.”
The rise of the KHL complicates life for NHL general managers, including Doug Armstrong of the Blues. Here are the reasons why:
European players, especially Russians, are less willing to spend time in the American Hockey League making their adjustment to the North American game. The ambitious KHL has made the European market much bigger. The Blues have several unsigned draft picks playing in Russia, including goaltender Konstatin Barulin and forwards Viktor Alexandrov. (Winger Sergei Andronov proved to be an exception to this rule. He left Russia before last season to sign an AHL deal with Peoria.)
Established European players will be more difficult to woo to the NHL. Armstrong hoped to sign center Jori Lehtera to fill his No. 2 center slot, but the Finnish star opted to continue playing in Russia. Armstrong had to turn to free agency instead, landing Derek Roy for about twice the money he hoped to pay Lehtera. That contract created a salary cap crunch that contributed to the David Perron trade.
More Russian players may elect to stay in Russia or return there in their prime. The Blues convinced elite Russian prospect Vladimir Tarasenko to sign his entry-level deal to play in the NHL, but the KHL will keep wooing him. Signing Tarasenko when he becomes a restricted free agent could become a bigger challenge.