The big news this week was the sudden retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk. It could have caught a few people off guard, but the move shouldn't have been all that surprising for a couple of reasons. There have been plenty of rumours over the years that Kovalchuk has wanted to return to his home of Russia with his family. Not to mention the New Jersey Devils get out from under that massive contract and saved themselves $77M. Everyone seems to feel bad for the Devils, but they were trending towards a rebuild anyway after losing Zach Parise and David Clarkson, so something tells me Lou Lamoriello isn't going to be losing any sleep over the loss of Kovalchuk due to all the money he is saving.
The downside though is the timing of the whole thing. If the team had known before free agency they could have spent some of that cash on free agents or attempted to re-sign Clarkson if they wanted. Even if this happened a year ago they could have made a stronger pitch to keep Parise. Losing Kovalchuk, Clarkson, and Parise represents a huge chunk of the team's scoring and that's going to be difficult to replace with any UFA's still out there.
Now that Kovalchuk is heading to the KHL for a reported $15M per season, could other players start to follow suit? NHLers have left for the KHL before, but not someone as talented as Kovalchuk at just 30 years of age. The Russian winger has already accumulated 417 goals and 816 points, and was well on his way to putting up some huge career numbers if he stayed healthy. In fact, no player has scored more regular-season goals than Kovalchuk since he entered the league and only three (Joe Thornton, Martin St. Louis, and Jarome Iginla) have posted more points during that span.
It's easy to forget that not every hockey player grew up dreaming of playing in the NHL and many are content simply making a nice living in their homes in Europe. Most teams in the KHL can't spend $15M per season on a player, but if the salaries become more comparable we could see other NHLers looking at it as an attractive option.
Tuukka Rask parlayed his strong campaign into a new eight-year $56M contract. It's certainly a risk for the Bruins to invest that much in goalie when very few netminders have been able to sustain success for that length of time over the past two decades. The recent trend has seen goaltenders like Tim Thomas, Mike Smith, Antti Niemi, and Sergei Bobrovsky emerge from obscurity and produce similar if not better results than the league's so called elite players at the position. I'm not saying Rask isn't one of the best in the world right now, but will he still be that way in three years?