Apologies for abusing my minimally competent knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, but I’m at a loss for a more respectable post title.
[Updated/Edited July 22: OK, only #4 is right. Kovulchuk is the A-Rod of the NHL, and should be pilloried accordingly. Yes, his "retirement" helps the Devils out of a cash flow problem now and in the waning years of the CBA, but basically, he's a selfish, greedy player, now demonstrated on and off the ice.]
Kovulchuk is going back to Russia. His contract is void, with 11 years left on it. After all the
Here is my purely speculative thinking on the situation. I know nothing, I am merely attempting to read the tea leaves left in the Russian room (even my word ordering fails at punnery here). Below are my stabs at four explanations, in what I think are the likely order; there may be more than one reason in which case they are presented with Gartner-esque probabilities of 0.5, 0.3, 0.15 and 0.05.
Explanation #1: Kovy really wants to go back to Russia, to represent his home country in the Olympics, perhaps to raise his family there, or to be with his own family. Sometimes Occam’s Razor slices the news along the simplest explanation lines. The impact on family, particularly an ex-patriate family, cannot be underestimated in professional sports. Based on my 38 seconds of more than arms’ length interactions with him, Kovy has strong family feelings (I write that looking at the signed t-shirt I received for supporting Kovy’s fundraising for the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv families). Petr Nedved’s wife nixed a centering role in Edmonton, and Janet Gretzky brought the Great One out of the Great White North. It happens, and we should respect it.
Explanation #2: He’s hurt, and the nagging injury that slowed him in the 2012 Cup Finals hasn’t fully healed. Rather than facing a potential “unfit to play” issue, everyone saves face through retirement, and any injury spectre doesn’t impact his future signing ability with the KHL. “Retirement” is another way of saying “I cannot play at the level the fans and I expect, and I’m going to stop instead of not playing at 100%.” If this is the case, Kovy should be held up as an exemplar of good behavior, of proper sportsmanship, and of being one of the only athletes who actually do something good for the fans. There are precedents for athletes retiring for non-sports reasons. Kovy could well be the anti A-Rod.
Explanation #3: The team is facing such a cash flow problem that it can’t be sold “as is”, and removing the Kovulchuk contract is the only way someone with an operative hockey operations plan will buy the Devils from Vandebeek. I’ve alternately thought this was the first reason, given the post-draft timing and recent rumors about the impending sale. Sadly, if there’s even an element of truth to this explanation, then the Devils will replace Kovulchuk with someone from my beer league (contract value: -$420, we pay to play).
Explanation #4: He’s the A-Rod of the NHL, with all invective, derision, and scorn heaped upon him. I really don’t think this is the case; he’s a significantly harder worker, a better team player, and a more honest and less self-centered person than that. Turning your back on what you wanted — a $100M+ contract in a major market with a contending team — doesn’t make sense unless there are complicating factors.
Rueing Clarkson’s departure doesn’t help; Clowe and Ryder will replace Clarkson with proper coaching (watch him as a Shark, not a Ranger — Tortorella managed to even make Brad Richards suck). Time for the Devils to invest in some up and coming talent — who heard of Matt Moulson before last year? And if the Devils front office wants to regain some fan cred, why not offer 75% off jerseys (basically: at cost) if you trade in a Parise, Kovulchuk, or Clarkson sweater for a Schneider, Henrique, Elias, Clowe, Ryder or M. Brodeur?