Ray Shero’s phone buzzed. It was a text message about Ilya Kovalchuk.
The 34-year-old star winger had spent the last four seasons with St. Petersburg SKA in the Kontinental Hockey League after “retiring” from the NHL in 2013, just three years into a massive 15-year, $100-million contract he signed with the New Jersey Devils in 2010.
Kovalchuk wanted to return to the NHL for the 2017-18 season, but there was one giant obstacle to overcome: Since he was on the NHL’s voluntary retirement list, the Devils were the gatekeepers for that comeback, retaining his rights for another year. They would either sign him and trade him, or Kovalchuk would return to the KHL for one more season and then become an unrestricted NHL free agent in Summer 2018, per the collective bargaining agreement.
In other words, the Devils would get something for him, or lose him for nothing.
Shero glanced down at the text message. Someone was inquiring about a rumor they had heard: That Shero, the Devils’ general manager, had been offered a first-round draft pick from the New York Rangers in exchange for Kovalchuk, and that Shero turned them down.
“That was a lie,” said Shero on Thursday.
“I never turned down a first-round pick. I never turned down a seventh-round pick. I never turned down anything. Why? It’s really simple: There was nothing to turn down.”
Ilya Kovalchuk has 816 points in 816 NHL games, including 417 goals. With due respect to Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, he was the best offensive player available this summer: Younger than the Sharks’ duo, an elite level playmaker and a sniper that could play the point on the power play.
His return to the NHL had been anticipated for years, and the interest was there this summer: According to sources, over half the league made some level of inquiry to Kovalchuk’s representatives over the last few months.
But, again, his return was a complicated matter.
There were two ways he could have played in the NHL this season: First, by having the rest of the NHL’s teams agree to remove him from the “voluntary retirement list” and declare him an unrestricted free agent, which wasn’t going to happen; so, sparing that, his only option was to agree to terms with another team, have the Devils sign him to that deal, and then trade him to that team.
Which brings up the first question in this odd odyssey: Why not make things easy and just play with the Devils? Especially when Kovalchuk had voiced a desire to return to a team in the Northeastern U.S.?
Well, to put it kindly, the Devils are in a “transition period” as a franchise, and neither they nor Kovalchuk had much appetite to add him to a roster that may be a few years away from contending.
(Plus, star winger Taylor Hall plays on the left side, and there was really no need for another positional mess like the one the team had when it acquired Kovalchuk and already had Zach Parise as a top-line left wing.)
But according to sources with Kovalchuk and the Devils, there was also some concern about how the fans would accept him, having basically abandoned the franchise after three seasons of a long-term deal to play in Russia.
It wasn’t a good fit in New Jersey, which meant if Kovalchuk was going to play next season, it would have to be with another NHL team willing to do business with him and then with Shero.
So Jay Grossman went shopping.
Grossman is the president of Puck Agency and has been Kovalchuk’s agent for years, having negotiated both the 17-year contract that the NHL rejected in 2010 and the 15-year deal that then-general manager Lou Lamoriello offered subsequently.
Shero tasked him with finding a team that wanted to sign Kovalchuk. Which, again, was easier said then done.
Consider the complications here in trying to create a market for Ilya Kovalchuk:
1 – What is a player who last played in the NHL back in 2013 actually worth, versus what he’s asking for? And what is that player worth when he’s already walked away from one NHL contract?
Sources tell Puck Daddy that the Kovalchuk contract terms were commensurate with this summer’s UFA market. Does that mean a $6.25 million cap hit like Patrick Marleau and Alex Radulov? Does that mean a term between 3-5 years like they received?
2 – Kovalchuk could only sign a new deal after July 1. So the negotiations with teams didn’t get serious enough early enough, because they needed to figure out their own roster commitments, go through the expansion draft process and then set a course for the NHL free agency period without any clue what the market might be for Kovalchuk. Before he knew it, the market for Kovalchuk narrowed quickly.
3 – But this wasn’t a UFA signing. This was a transaction.
Essentially you had this strange marriage between what amounts to a Group 2 free agent (eligible for an offer sheet) and an expiring asset, like you’d find at the trade deadline.
Not only was there consideration of what Kovalchuk would cost as far as term and dollars, but there was a separate consideration for what the Devils would want for him. Would they take on any salary going back the other way? Was it worth even talking contract if the Devils were going to demand too much to complete the sign and trade?
4 – All of this led to the basic problem with trying to acquire Kovalchuk: His agent was deputized to make a financial deal with another NHL team, but there was complete separation between that aspect of the negotiation and what the Devils might ask for.
One thing had to happen before the other.
“It wasn’t my job to negotiate a contract with Kovalchuk,” said Shero, “and I can’t trade the guy unless he’s got a deal somewhere.”
As July 1 approached, Kovalchuk didn’t have a concrete offer from another team. But Grossman had enough interest from three teams to take these potential matches back to Shero in the hopes that they could transition from contractual discussions to the compensation talks.
Shero reached out to all three in the last week.
All three determined they weren’t in on Kovalchuk.
One team was a definite “no.” Another team had something cooking with Grossman, but never circled back to Shero.
The last team traded a few text messages with Shero, before informing the Devils general manager that there were other areas of need they wanted to address ahead of adding Kovalchuk. They were going to circle back with Grossman, but Shero said they never did.
So the market for Kovalchuk had become the Sahara.
Meanwhile, the Russian star was reconsidering his own options. The KHL would have him back for another season, at a high salary. He would be eligible to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics, where Russia has been drooling over the chance to take on Swedish and Canadian teams without NHL talents.
(There was also a report that Vladimir Putin’s “inner circle” pressured Kovalchuk to return. No word on if the 30 NHL teams that decided not to make a trade with the Devils were summarily hacked as well.)
Above all else, Kovalchuk would be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and perhaps then some of the teams on his wish list would be freed up to sign him.
So Kovalchuk announced he would play in the KHL again for the 2017-18 season, having failed to find a contract to his liking in the NHL to set everything else in motion.
“That was the first and only step that had to happen,” said Shero.
NHL pundits and Devils fans have been wondering what happened, too, regarding Shero. Here was an asset that he was going lose for nothing next summer, and yet he couldn’t get any compensation for him now.
Of course, Shero sees it differently. First is the fact that Kovalchuk predated him and the Devils’ current ownership. “I don’t look at it like a lost asset. It would have been house money if something happened,” he said.
Second is the fact that Shero couldn’t make a deal if there was no contract agreement between Kovalchuk and another team.
Now, this aspect has been a point of debate. The Devils were a third party in these talks between Kovalchuk and other teams, and the speculation was that Shero’s ask for compensation was expected to be so high that it put off some teams from firming up a contract offer with Kovalchuk. That was according to Igor Eronko of Sports-Express in Russia.
Shero denies that. “I was never presented a deal,” he said.
The New York Post reported that the New York Rangers were heavy in on Kovalchuk, writing that “Shero understandably was hesitant to trade him right across the river.”
But Shero said if a deal was there, he wouldn’t hesitate to trade with the Devils’ arch rivals, with whom the franchise has never made a trade.
“I’d do a deal with the Rangers. I said that all along. I don’t care. I’d do a deal with Jeff Gorton or Garth Snow [of the Islanders] or Ron Hextall [of the Flyers]. It’s about improving our team,” said Shero.
Was there a deal to be made to bring Kovalchuk back to the NHL in 2017? Quite possibly. But not one that Kovalchuk preferred to the alternative of a year in the KHL, the Olympics and total freedom next summer.
In Summer 2018, this situation becomes much less complicated: Straight contract talks, no concerns about compensating the Devils. The process will be easier, the market likely broader for his services. (Although now Kovalchuk will have a plus-35 contract, which might give some teams pause.)
But this summer, for a variety of reasons, there was no return for Ilya Kovalchuk.
“Get a contract with the team. Then that general manager calls New Jersey. That’s all that had to happen. And it never did,” said Shero. “So that’s the end of the story.”
MORE FROM YAHOO SPORTS