It wasn't supposed to be like this.
In 2010, the New Jersey Devils signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year contract after what felt like an endless summer of haggling with the NHL over what the league felt was the circumvention of the salary cap.
(Hey, what can I say? The league is into selective enforcement of almost all the rules, except that idiotic "puck over glass" bit.)
Now, the Devils find themselves without Kovalchuk, who retired Thursday, and a first round pick in next year's draft, which was forfeited as part of a deal with the league to allow this signing in the first place. And while the timing could be worse from a salary cap standpoint (Jersey eats $250,000 on the cap for the foreseeable future, much less than if this retirement came a few years down the road), Kovalchuk's exit comes after the big offseason moves have been made in the NHL. Basically, GM Lou Lamoriello has no way of replacing his star scorer.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
There are a lot of questions about what this means for Kovalchuk, who is expected to sign with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL very soon.
What's more interesting to me, however, is what this means to New Jersey.
The Devils aren't exactly rich with top-six forwards. The Kovalchuk contract made it tougher for Lamoriello to keep Zach Parise, who ended up in Minnesota (granted, he may have gone anyway and taken the opportunity to play close to home). While Lou spent on Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder last week, neither is nearly the caliber of a Kovalchuk.
The rest of Jersey's crop of forwards? Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, and not much else. Lamoriello will eventually re-sign Adam Henrique, but he is still trying to find more consistency at this level. Guys like Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter can contribute, but are more two-way players than scorers.
This isn't meant as a slam on these guys. There are capable NHL players in this bunch, but one thing is certain: Had Lamoriello known ten days ago that this would happen, he would have done more than sign Clowe and Ryder. Now, he doesn't have that luxury.
The Devils will play defense. Anton Volchenkov, Marek Zidlicky, Bryce Salvador, and Andy Greene are -- at worst -- serviceable defensemen. One has to assume that 2011 first-round pick Adam Larsson will give them more in his third NHL season. Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur and draft day acquisition Cory Schneider will form a formidable duo in goal.
This team won't be an easy one to play against, but in a division with the uber-talented Penguins, youthful Islanders, potentially explosive Rangers, improved Flyers and the playoff-contending Hurricanes, Capitals and Blue Jackets, how is this team going to stay competitive for the postseason?
Kovalchuk's retirement isn't all bad. He talked of wanting to stay in Russia after the lockout, so it could be argued that his heart wasn't in the NHL anymore. The last thing he should be doing in that case is taking his $15 million per season and going through the motions. It wouldn't do anyone any good.
By leaving now, he only costs the Devils a quarter million in a recapture penalty every year. It would be worse the longer he stuck around.
So in the long term, this isn't destructive to New Jersey. Of course, that doesn't help matters much now. In the short term, a team that most were going to pick last in the Atlantic Division will be practically unanimous to finish in that position. And Lamoriello will have to fight to get what is almost certainly going to be a high lottery pick back from the NHL. Perhaps he can become a sympathetic figure in this case, because given the circumstances of his star's departure, Lamoriello will sure need that pick.