Ilya Kovalchuk spurs speculation by remaining with KHL club

Ilya Kovalchuk was still in the KHL as of Tuesday, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that all players must honour valid NHL contracts when the lockout is officially over.

NHL's Bill Daly says contracts must be honoured

Ilya Kovalchuk, seen in a December game in the KHL, has over 12 years remaining on his NHL deal with New Jersey. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Several NHLers are gearing up for the official end of the lockout by taking part in informal practice sessions around North American rinks, while others are in transit after spending the past several weeks with European clubs.

Ilya Kovalchuk, meanwhile, is still in the KHL. The forward played a full game on Tuesday with SKA Saint Petersburg, with no word on when he'll be returning to his NHL club, the New Jersey Devils.

With a new collective bargaining agreement not yet officially put to bed, Kovalchuk is free and clear to continue skating with the Russian club.

Lou Lamoriello likened it to someone staying in game shape by suiting up in the AHL until the new deal is ratified, according to Devils beat reporter Tom Gulitti, but the New Jersey general manager must be cringing over the risk of injury to a player who signed a monstrous contract just two years ago.

Given Kovalchuk's past comments, his presence in a KHL game Tuesday had some hockey pundits wondering not when, but if, the sniper would return to the NHL.

While many were sweating the beginning of a second lockout in eight years in the fall, the 29-year-old Russian struck a different note.

"We are all happy here [in the KHL]," he reportedly told Russian website Sportbox.ru in October. "If the conditions in the NHL will be unclear, many guys will think twice whether to return there or not.

"Basically, I don’t rule out staying in Russia in the case of a reduction of our salaries in the NHL."

Even if Kovalchuk were to entertain the idea of staying put — which is pure speculation at this point — the NHL and KHL have a longstanding agreement to honour signed contracts.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the KHL reaffirmed its intention to honour that agreement.

NHL owners plan to vote on the new 10-year agreement Wednesday. Players will vote on Thursday and Friday.

Kovalchuk agreed to a 15-year, $100-million US contract with New Jersey in 2010 after an initial 17-year pact was rejected by the league. It was a contract, among others, that helped prompt concern that the previous CBA needed to be reworked.

Kovalchuk led the Devils with 37 goals and 83 points last season, with the club reaching the Stanley Cup final.

With files from The Associated Press