Ilya Kovalchuk finally has an Olympic gold medal around his neck. Now he'll take one last shot at a Stanley Cup, hoping to complete the coveted career trifecta.
The former Devils and Thashers superstar, now 34, confirmed on Sunday his long-rumored intention to return to the NHL for the 2018-19 season, according to insider Aivis Kalnins, ending a five-year hiatus in his native Russia with the Kontinental Hockey League.
Kovalchuk's contract with the KHL's SKA St. Petersburg expires this spring. No longer beholden to the Devils, who retained Kovalchuk's rights up until this season, he can become an unrestricted NHL free agent beginning July 1, hoping to recoup some of the $77 million he forfeited when abruptly retiring in 2013 with 12 years remaining on a 15-year contract.
This time, however, Kovalchuk will be UFA, no strings attached. Devils won't have his rights anymore. He enters July 1 market like any other UFA https://t.co/0cM6uL3BIb
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) February 25, 2018
NHL teams are likely to line up for Kovalchuk's services again.
In 11 NHL seasons, Kovalchuk amassed 417 goals and an even 816 points in 816 games. He's no longer a point-per-game talent, but he does have 31 goals in the KHL this season and undoubtedly can still score on NHL goaltenders.
On the heels of an Olympic gold medal run with the Olympic Athletes from Russia, his value hasn't been this high in years, even at an advanced age. Kovalchuk was named MVP of the tournament with five goals and seven points in six games. After beating the Americans in group play, he declared “I still have gas in my tank," a veritable wink-wink to a captive audience in the U.S. The Russians beat Germany 4-3 Saturday for the country's first Olympic gold medal since 1992, when its players competed on a "Unified Team."
Kovalchuk's Russia teams have won gold twice at the IIHF world championships, but never in the Olympics. Former NHL star Pavel Datsyuk, Kovalchuk's teammate in Pyeongchang, completed the hockey triple crown, adding Olympic gold the his world championship and Stanley Cup collection.
Kovalchuk is now in position to do the same.
“Since I was five years old, when I started to play hockey, this was the dream of my late father,” he said of capturing gold at the Olympics. “This was my dream.”
Kovalchuk has previously expressed an interest in playing in the New York metro area upon returning to North America. He won't re-sign with the Devils, that much is certain, and the rebuilding Rangers might be out of the equation, too, if he wants to win a championship. But the 2018 free-agent class just got more interesting.
On Friday, Kovalchuk reaffirmed his intent to return to the NHL this summer when he's eligible, appearing on a Russian television show.
Kovalchuk was on Russian TV today saying he is definitely back in the NHL next season. Wants the Stanley Cup.
— Slava Malamud (@SlavaMalamud) March 16, 2018