NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Star forward Ilya Kovalchuk stunned the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, retiring from the NHL to return to his native Russia.
The 30-year-old Kovalchuk walked away from the $77 million that was left on the 15-year contract he signed with New Jersey in 2010, including guaranteed annual salaries of at least $11 million over the next four seasons.
The Devils announced the news Thursday afternoon, saying that Kovalchuk alerted Lou Lamoriello, the team’s president and general manager, earlier this year that he wanted to return home to Russia with his family after 11 seasons in the NHL.
“This wasn’t a decision made by the New Jersey Devils,” a testy Lamoriello said at the end of a conference call with reporters less than an hour after the retirement was announced.
Lamoriello refused to disclose anything about his conversations with Kovalchuk relating to the surprising retirement.
He also didn’t clarify whether Kovalchuk planned to play in Russia’s KHL next season _ as is expected _ or whether the Devils would retain his rights if he reconsidered his retirement, deferring to the NHL.
“All I know is that he will not be playing here at his desire,” said Lamoriello, who built the Devils’ three Stanley Cup championship teams and had hoped Kovalchuk would be the centerpiece of a fourth.
Lamoriello said Kovalchuk’s retirement wasn’t related to anything physical. The forward had back problems during the 2011-12 season and missed 11 games this year because of a shoulder injury.
“This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia,” Kovalchuk, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft, said in a statement. “Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils.”
Kovalchuk was to earn $11.3 million in each of the next two seasons and $56 million over the next five years. Lamoriello said Kovalchuk didn’t receive a signing bonus, so the team isn’t seeking to recover any money from him.
“I am never surprised about anything that happens in this game today,” Lamoriello said.
The defection means the Devils have lost a top player after each of the past two seasons. Zach Parise signed as a free agent with Minnesota after New Jersey’s run to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals.
Kovalchuk’s exit now deprives the Devils of a star outside of aging goalie Martin Brodeur, who is far from his prime now that he is 41.
Lamoriello wouldn’t say whether the team would’ve done anything different had the Devils known of Kovalchuk’s decision before the NHL free-agent signing period began last week.
New Jersey lost forward David Clarkson, who signed with Toronto after posting 30 goals during the 2011-12 season and 15 while playing in all 48 games during this lockout-shortened campaign.