Ilya Kovalchuk, at 30 years old, has retired from the NHL. Where's he going? To the KHL.
Should Stars fans panic? No. Should this be forgotten and brushed aside? Nope. Then what? Well, here's my take.
Let's rewind to the draft. Valeri Nichushkin, top 5 prospect, NHL ready, and even the top talent in the draft according to many scouts, falls to number 10. This doesn't happen often; there had to be a risk involved with picking this 6'4, powerful and skilled Russian forward. The risk wasn't in his potential; we know how good he is, being the first NHL-ready draftee to come into town for this franchise since Mike Modano.
The concern many had coming into the draft was his time in the KHL, his contract, and his willingness to play in the NHL. Much of this doubt and question was stifled when Nichushkin expressed his own confidence and willingness to be a part of the Stars as they become "Stanley Cup contenders" (I liked that). We were further reassured when research was done on his KHL contract and it was confirmed he can and would be released from it if he does play in Dallas this season. Also, Jim Nill has some experience with these KHLers. Great, water under the bridge.
Well, then this afternoon happened, and I couldn't help but be concerned about our young Star who just signed a three-year entry level deal. For the record, I love European/Russian players. I don't categorize them differently from other NHL players. My initial worry was stemmed in the money Kovalchuk is getting over in the KHL, speculated to be between $10 and $20 million a year. That's a hefty raise from his remaining 12-year/ $77 million NHL contract he just escaped from. New Jersey really bit the bullet on this one. Oh man, let me tell you what happened there.
The Devils negotiated a deal in 2010 (took almost all summer) with Kovalchuk for 15-years/ $100 million (originally offered 17-years $102 million). Shortly after, the NHL determined this to be in violation of the previous CBA and fined NJ $3 million and two draft picks, one of which is in the first round next season. So there's that.
It is also believed that the cap hit from this mammoth contract (~$6.6 million) also prevented the Devils from competing in the Parise sweepstakes as he departed New Jersey for Minnesota in 2012. And then there's that.
We also watched as the Devils missed out on re-signing David Clarkson. Oh, and there will be a $250,000 cap hit from the Kovalchuk contract through 2025 (OK, that's not terrible--would've been $700,000 if this happened next year).
Now, I'm not saying Parise and Clarkson would've signed with New Jersey and it's all Kovalchuk's fault they're in this mess, but this is the realty that the Devils are facing right now. And it's not a pretty one. This next statement might make some people angry: I cannot fully blame Kovalchuk for this (players are going to do what's best for themselves and their families). However, I do feel very very bad for the Devils and their fans. And this leads me into my much more related point (how not to feel this way as a Stars fan).
Unfortunately, the Devils set themselves up here. The Stars can't do that with Nichushkin. And I don't think they will. Will Nichushkin announce his NHL retirement and leave for the KHL in his prime? We don't know that, but the potential backlash from the off chance of that happening can be minimized with smart cap management and careful negotiations come free agency. Jim Nill has the tools to ensure that one player will not and cannot impact the team in so many ways. After all, this is a business.
I know I am looking into the quite distant and uncertain future when I place Nichushkin in the ranks of elite free agents to be signed, but if/when that time comes, remember the Kovalchuk contract and realize there has to be a cutoff. I have never been a huge fan of reckless, insanely obviously cap-evading deals, and won't be if that's what it takes to re-sign a guy like Nichushkin. However, I truly do trust Jim Nill will do what's best for this team, not just what's best for one guy.
So I say, instead of concerning ourselves with what one player decides, whether he's Russian, Czech, Swedish, American, or Canadian, let's pay attention to the guys writing up the contracts and making the hires. That's where concern should lie, and it seems like Jim Nill has done a stellar job so far. In Nill we trust.