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What Ilya Kovalchuk’s Retirement Means for the New Jersey Devils

New Jersey Devils right wing Ilya Kovalchuk
New Jersey Devils right wing Ilya Kovalchuk

Jan 25, 2013; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils right wing Ilya Kovalchuk (17) celebrates his overtime game winning goal against the Washington Capitals at the Prudential Center. The Devils defeated the Capitals 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Just one year removed from an Eastern Conference championship, the New Jersey Devils have made headlines numerous times this offseason. Though preceded by a blockbuster draft-day trade and a pair of major free agent moves, Ilya Kovalchuk‘s shocking retirement is by far the biggest news out of Newark this summer. The franchise forward’s departure raises tons of questions for the club.

Back in 2010, Ilya Kovalchuk signed an enormous 15-year deal worth $100 million dollars that would have kept him in New Jersey until 2025. Instead the 30-year old superstar walked away from $77 million to free himself from the 12-year’s remaining on the pact, allowing him to return to his native Russia.

Kovalchuk played in all situations for the Devils. In 2013, he averaged 24:44 of ice time per night, the most of any forward in the National Hockey League. Steven Stamkos, who ranked second among forwards in average ice time, trailed the winger by a wide margin of 2:41. The time statistics alone prove that “Kovy’s” skates will have to be filled by committee.

Though Patrik Elias led the Devils in points this past season, Kovalchuk’s production should be nearly impossible to replace. The former-Atlanta Thrasher scored 30 or more goals in each of his full seasons with the Devils. One of the most gifted goal-scorers in modern memory, Kovalchuk lit the lamp 417 times in his career and seemed destined for far more.

Read More: Ilya Kovalchuk Retires as One of the Greatest Goal Scorers Ever

He scored 40 or more goals six times, reaching the fifty goal plateau in two of those seasons. He also averaged more than a point per game a half-dozen times, including his second full season with the Devils in 2011-12.

The loss of Kovalchuk’s goal-scoring prowess will be compounded by David Clarkson‘s move to Toronto. Clarkson led the Devils with 15 goals in the shortened season, and cashed in with a big free agent deal that will keep him with the Maple Leafs until 2020.

The elite one-two punch of Kovalchuk and Clarkson seems set to be replaced by recent New Jersey acquisitions Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe. Both right wingers put pen to paper on lucrative deals when the free agent market opened on July 5th.

Since leaving Boston after winning a Stanley Cup in 2011, Michael Ryder has emerged as a dependable scorer. As a member of the Dallas Stars in 2011-12, he scored 35 goals and totaled 62 points. He then tallied 16 goals split between Dallas and Montreal this year. The skilled veteran has a great shot, but he is hardly a dynamic star like Kovalchuk.

While the Ryder acquisition looks like a step in the right direction, the Clowe signing is already questionable. The physical Clowe was likely brought in to replace Clarkson’s grit, but the two-time twenty goal scorer is coming off a very poor season. Before being dealt to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, the 30-year old failed to score a single goal. On the east coast he improved slightly, but he still finished the year with just three strikes.

It seems unlikely that Ryder and Clowe will be up to the challenge of off-setting Kovalchuk’s exit, but perhaps some long term financial benefits may ease the pain. According to TSN’s Bob Mckenzie, the Devils will only be held accountable for a “modest $250K/year penalty” for each of the next 12 years. That means that the remaining $6.5 million of Kovalchuk’s annual cap hit will be available for GM Lou Lamoriello to spend as he sees fit. In fact, this bizarre turn of events may have let the Devils off scot free, after committing themselves to one of the NHL’s worst contracts.

Given the additional cap space, this could look like a long term win for the Devils, but in the context of their recent moves, that is difficult to accept. With the exception of a savvy trade to acquire franchise goaltender of the future Corey Schneider, the Devils are financially committed to winning now. Meanwhile, they should be headed for a complete rebuild.

Still dependent on 41-year old netminder Martin Brodeur and 37-year old leading scorer Patrik Elias, the Devils just threw more than $31 million at two wingers already in their thirties. At the moment, injury-prone center Adam Henrique and unproven defenseman Adam Larsson are the Devils’ only promising young players at the NHL level, suggesting that major changes are necessary.

In what could be Martin Brodeur’s final season, New Jersey fans shouldn’t expect the legendary netminder to pad his record win total because the Devils are on track for some tough times ahead. Next spring they will begin the hunt for the next Ilya Kovalchuk in the draft, but for now they do not have a first round pick, suggesting that they will be major sellers at the 2014 trade deadline.

Owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek may be ecstatic about the millions of dollars flooding back into his wallet, but there is simply no way to replace a generational talent like Ilya Kovalchuk.

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