Kovalchuk retired from the National Hockey League last week after playing 816 career regular season games in the North American professional league. At the time of the announcement, Kovalchuk was scheduled to enter the fourth year of a 15-year, $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils. By retiring, Kovalchuk forfeited the remaining $77 million on the term of the deal.
However, the 30-year-old forward is expected to make up those loses fairly quickly, as reports indicated that Kovalchuk could earn as much as $15-$20 million per season with SKA. In addition, his contract could be significantly front-loaded, which would amount to a substantial sum of money being given to the player shortly after signing the agreement. The financial terms of the deal have not been released at the time of this writing.
Kovalchuk openly expressed his desire to remain with SKA after the lifting of the 2012 NHL lockout. Like many players, Kovalchuk went overseas after the board of governors and NHL Players' Association failed to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement prior to the Sept. 15 expiration of the previous deal. Kovalchuk enjoyed playing in his home country and publicly stated that he wanted to finish the remainder of the 2012-13 season in the league.
He ultimately returned to the NHL in time for the start of the 2013 season, but apparently spoke on several occasions with New Jersey manager Lou Lamoriello about his desire to return home. Lamoriello and the Devils seemingly respected this desire and allowed Kovalchuk's contract to be terminated through retirement. Had the club not agreed with the decision, they could have tolled his contract from season-to-season to ensure that Kovalchuk could never play professional hockey again. Due to the memorandum of understanding between the KHL and NHL, Kovalchuk would not have been permitted to play in Russia while signed to a deal in North America.
By allowing the player to retire, New Jersey gave Kovalchuk the opportunity to sign in Russia.
Interestingly enough, this might not be the end of Kovalchuk's career in North America. Multiple reports have already surfaced that Kovalchuk could return to the NHL. A foreign language report with his sister Arina apparently includes a quote stating that he will return to North America in three years.
In addition, Larry Brooks of the New York Daily News writes that Kovalchuk will be able to become an unrestricted free agent in the NHL prior to the 2018-19 season when he is 35 years old. This has to do with rules around the 'voluntary retired list,' which Kovalchuk is currently a member. Brooks' report includes confirmation and quotation from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, which explains the full extent of a potential return to the league.
Of course, such a scenario is still several years in the making. For the time being, Kovalchuk is a member of the KHL and will be for the foreseeable future.