New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday.

Multiple reports said that the 30-year-old Kovalchuk, who is walking away from the $77 million US he was still owed under the massive contract he signed with New Jersey in 2010, will continue his playing career with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League in his native Russia.

Kovalchuk played 11 seasons in the NHL, including the last three-plus with New Jersey. Since he entered the NHL, no player has scored as many regular-season goals as Kovalchuk's 417, and his 816 points (in 816 games) put him behind only Joe Thornton, Martin St. Louis and Jarome Iginla.

"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia," Kovalchuk said in a statement. "Though I decided to return this past season, [Devils president and GM] Lou [Lamoriello] was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me."

Kovalchuk signed a 17-year, $102-million US contract with New Jersey in 2010 that was rejected by the NHL for circumventing salary-cap rules because Kovalchuk would have been 44 years old when it expired. The deal was amended to 15 years and $100 million, and the Devils were fined $3 million by the league and stripped of two draft choices.

Under league rules, Kovalchuk will count $250,000 against New Jersey's salary-cap number for the next 12 years.

"After many conversations with Ilya over the past year on his desire to retire from the National Hockey League, Ilya’s decision became official today," Lamoriello said in the statement released by the team. "On behalf of the entire organization, I wish Ilya and his family all the best in their future endeavors."

Walking away

Kovalchuk was scheduled to make the following in the coming years:

  • 2013-14: $11.3M
  • 2014-15: $11.3M
  • 2015-16: $11.6M
  • 2016-17: $11.8M
  • 2017-18: $10M
  • 2018-19: $7M
  • 2019-20: $4M
  • 2020-21: $1M
  • 2021-22: $1M
  • 2022-23: $1M
  • 2023-24: $3M
  • 2024-25: $4M

Kovalchcuk was selected first overall in the 2001 draft by Atlanta, and went on to record a pair of 52-goal seasons with the Thrashers before he was traded to New Jersey in February of 2010.

Despite averaging 42 goals in his seven full seasons in Atlanta, he could not lead the team to a single playoff win.

With the Devils, Kovalchuk scored 89 goals and 112 assists for 201 points in 222 games, while adding eight goals and 11 assists in 23 playoff contests and helping them reach the Stanley Cup final in 2012.

He has represented Russia at three Olympic Winter Games, nine world championships, one world junior championship and the 2004 World Cup.

Blessing in disguise?

The Devils lost winger David Clarkson in free agency but re-signed Patrik Elias, Marek Zidlicky and Dainius Zubrus earlier this off-season. The team has also added forwards Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder and Rostislav Olesz, as well as goaltender Cory Schneider.

Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman believes Kovalchuk's retirement is actually a blessing in disguise for the organization, primarily because of the Devils' reported financial troubles. Most recently, team owner Jeff Vanderbeek and the city of Newark, N.J., were in a legal battle over rent issues that ended in favour of the Devils and led to the city's mayor criticizing Vanderbeek for reneging on promises.

"While the Devils would be annoyed from a hockey perspective, I'd bet league/ownership is not upset from a business perspective. Why? Because without this contract on the books, it will be easier to find a seller or a cash infusion for the team," Friedman tweeted.

With files from The Canadian Press