Kovalchuk stated via press release that he had been contemplating leaving for Russia for the entirety of this season:
"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia. 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, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me."
Devils manager Lou Lamoriello stated in the same release that he had multiple conversations with Kovalchuk about retiring from the NHL over the course of this past year:
"After many conversations with Ilya over the past year on his desire to retire from the National Hockey League, Ilya's decision became official today. On behalf of the entire organization, I wish Ilya and his family all the best in their future endeavors."
Due to the lockout of the NHL Players' Association earlier this year, Kovalchuk and several other players headed overseas to find employment. Kovalchuk played in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League and captained SKA Saint Petersburg. Once the lockout was lifted, Kovalchuk expressed his desire to remain in the KHL. Due to the memorandum of understanding between the two leagues, Kovalchuk was not going to be permitted to play in Russia.
This is a stunning development and a huge blow to the Devils. The 30-year-old forward still has 12 years remaining on a 15-year, $100 million contract that carries an annual average value of $6.6 million against the salary cap. By retiring, Kovalchuk forfeits the remaining $77 million on his contract.
Of course, the financial relief is probably the lone benefit to this. New Jersey already lost captain Zach Parise last offseason, as well as forward David Clarkson this season. The retirement of Kovalchuk is merely another hit to the team's dwindling talent pool.