Ilya Kovalchuk will have familiar company joining him in Russia.
Igor Eronko reports Devils forward Alexei Ponikarovsky has signed a two-year deal in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg. There he’ll team up with Kovalchuk and aim to win the Gagarin Cup to make up for the Stanley Cup they couldn’t win in 2012 with New Jersey.
Since being traded by Toronto in the 2009-10 season, Ponikarovsky’s career has seen him bounce to five different teams (Pittsburgh, Carolina, Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Winnipeg) and two different tours with the Devils. In those three seasons he’s scored a total of 25 goals, the kinds of numbers he used to put up in a single season with the Leafs.
Now that he’s off to Russia, it gives him a chance to find a spark in his game yet again. After hopping from team to team here, this move may actually be for the best.
New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer wasn’t trying to fool anyone today when asked about the departure of Ilya Kovalchuk for the KHL.
According to DeBoer, next season’s Devils team will be a far different version than the one that made it to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
“Sure it’s different,” DeBoer said, per the Star-Ledger. “You take out a (Zach) Parise and you take out a Kovalchuk. Those are players who single-handedly can do some things that only a handful of players in the world can do. We’re going to have to be a different team.
“We’re going to have to play more of a team game. Our five-man units and our systems are going to have to be air tight. Our special teams are going to have to be better. Goaltending is going to have to be top notch like it has been. There is going to be an emphasis on all those areas because you’re taking out a couple game-breaking players.”
The Devils missed the playoffs in 2013 (though they were perhaps a bit unlucky in that regard), so clearly they have a pretty big challenge facing them next season.
They should, however, be better in one area, and that’s goaltending. You’ll recall that Martin Brodeur was hurt for a lengthy stretch of this past season, during which Johan Hedberg really struggled to fill in. And let’s be honest, Brodeur wasn’t exactly unbeatable when he was healthy, finishing with a save percentage of just .901.
Now, after Cory Schneider came over from Vancouver, the Devils have a legitimate competition for the starting job.
How, when, or if Ilya Kovalchuk can one day return to the NHL has been a hot topic since the 30-year-old sniper left New Jersey to sign a four-year contract with KHL club SKA Saint Petersburg.
According to the New York Post, the rules says he’s free to come back to the NHL when he turns 35. The Record’s Tom Gulitti, on the other hand, has been told the Devils may still be able to challenge a Kovalchuk return, even when he’s 35 or older.
Ask Kovalchuk about it, though — as Sovietsky Sport did — and it’s clear it’s not a topic he wants to discuss.
“I am not going to Russia to start thinking about coming back to the NHL,” he said (as translated by Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo! Sports).
Kovalchuk also said he chose to leave North America because he’s more comfortable in Russia, where his mom, sister and friends live.
He did express a bit of sadness that he was never able to win the Stanley Cup, but he’s sure he made the right decision by signing in the KHL.
Damien Brunner’s agent has thrown some cold water on a report out of Switzerland that suggested his client was about to sign with the New Jersey Devils.
This morning, Neil Sheehy told The Record’s Tom Gulitti that there’s “nothing imminent” on the signing front.
The Devils obviously have a big hole to fill after sniper Ilya Kovalchuk left for the KHL. Brunner, 27, scored 12 times in 44 games for Detroit during the regular season, then adding a team-high five goals in the playoffs.
Brunner was reportedly looking for $3 -3.5 million per season for 2-3 years from the Red Wings.
Alex Kovalev didn’t exactly volunteer to end his NHL career and move on to play in Europe, but he told the Montreal Gazette that he isn’t surprised that Ilya Kovalchuk made such a choice.
“Hockey in Russia has become much better,” Kovalev said. “There are a lot of European players who go and play there, and the KHL wants to bring good hockey back. They’ll do whatever it takes.”
“They’ll try to bring a lot of NHL players to the KHL. There are a lot of factors that can attract them: money, the game, a lot of new arenas, everything’s going in the right direction. And for Russian players, they can make more money at home and not pay the high taxes they do in North America.”
Kovalev still holds some hard feelings about the way things ended with the Florida Panthers and also didn’t seem to happy with the direction the Russian Olympic team seems to be headed in 2014.
While he spoke of being more motivated than ever to hit the gym (and shoot for a stated goal of playing hockey until he’s 50), the 40-year-old seems a little jaded about the sport.
“It feels that people don’t care about the hockey anymore,” Kovalev said about the way things ended with Florida. “It’s just a business — trying to save money and free up cap space for young guys.”
Perhaps that’s why he barely shrugs his shoulder at a decision that shocked so much of the hockey world.