Ilya Kovalchuk ready for cold reception in return to New Jersey

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“I wanted to go to the place where I have a chance to win the Cup, and the Kings are definitely one of the teams.”

Year One of Ilya Kovalchuk’s return to the NHL isn’t going as planned, with the Los Angeles Kings selling off pieces as they contemplate the future while eyeing the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery.

The NHL comeback continues on Tuesday as Kovalchuk returns to New Jersey for the first time since his shock 2013 retirement announcement. Only two players remain from that Devils team — captain Andy Green and Travis Zajac. They might have some friendly exchanges on the ice, but the Prudential Center crowd will probably have different feelings, ones still with them nearly six years later.

“I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing,” Kovalchuk said, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, after LA’s overtime win against the New York Rangers Monday night, “but I love that, so it’s all good.”

Of course, it was only “retiring” from the NHL so he could go to the KHL for five seasons and also represent Russia (a.k.a. Olympic Athletes of Russia) during the 2018 Winter Olympics and win gold.

The controversial decision, which came three years after he signed a 15-year, $100M extension with the Devils, worked for both sides. Kovalchuk got to go home and New Jersey freed up cap space. The league did fine the team $3M and docked them a 2011 third-round pick and a future first-round choice, but the NHL then decided in 2014 to give New Jersey back the first-rounder and forgave part of the fine.

(Kovalchuk’s original 17-year, $102M contract signed in 2010 was deemed salary cap circumvention and the NHL and NHLPA went to arbitration where the deal was nullified.)

In 222 regular season games with the Devils Kovalchuk scored 89 goals and recorded 201 points. His production continued into the postseason where he scored 10 goals and recorded 25 points in 28 playoff games, which included New Jersey’s 2012 appearance in the Stanley Cup Final against the Russian forward’s new team in LA.

After years of speculation about a return, Kovalchuk was free to come back to the NHL after turning 35 last April. The Devils had held his rights since his “retirement.” With the Kings ponying up a third year, he signed in LA for $18.75M and there was plenty of excitement and intrigue about how he would play after so long away from the NHL.

Well, through 42 games, Kovalchuk has 10 goals and 25 points. Despite claiming he’s a “young 35,” the offense has been serviceable on a famously slow Kings roster, even as he missed a time with an ankle injury. His ice time is only at 16:40, not like the 20-plus minutes a night he played during his prime years. He’s been benched, put on the third line and played a net-front presence on the power play.

It’s been a weird year all around in LA.

Given the state of the Kings and Kovalchuk still showing he can be of service with the right useage, his name has popped up in the trade rumor mill ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline. But two more years with a $6.25M cap hit will probably dissuade teams from heavily pursuing such a move.

For now, Kovalchuk is focused on Tuesday night’s game against the Devils and the memories of his years in New Jersey.

“We had a great team,” he said. “We went to the Final. It was a lot of fun. I played with some great players there, a few Hall of Famers and some guys have their jersey retired. It was a great experience for sure.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.