Ilya Kovalchuk ‘removed’ from SKA St. Petersburg after post-season loss

Ilya Kovalchuk has been benched by his KHL team after they lost the opening game of their first-round playoff series. SKA St. Petersburg said it was a “coach’s decision.” It doesn’t mean an NHL return is imminent, though.

SKA St. Petersburg is coming down hard on captain Ilya Kovalchuk after the team dropped its first game of the playoffs in overtime.

St. Petersburg coach Maxim Sokolov announced Monday that Kovalchuk, 32, has been “removed from the squad” ahead of Game Two of the first-round series against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, calling the move a “coach’s decision.” Sokolov added that Kovalchuk will be placed on a training program.

“This is a regular working situation, and we are treating it accordingly,” SKA GM Andrei Tochitsky said in a statement. “Changes can happen to a squad. Upon the decision of the coaching staff, Ilya Kovalchuk will train individually.”

The move comes after SKA dropped Game One in overtime of a game in which Kovalchuk led St. Petersburg in ice time, skating 24:26 and finishing the contest minus-2. One of Kovalchuk’s minuses came when he turned over the puck in the second period to set up Lokomotiv’s game-tying goal.

The benching also comes one season after Kovalchuk helped lead St. Petersburg to a Gagarin Cup championship. He scored the championship-winning goal.

There’s no telling what this means for Kovalchuk’s future in the primarily Russian league or his future with St. Petersburg. However, it is worth noting that there has been no indication Kovalchuk will be held out of the lineup for more than one game, which could mean he’s back by Game Three on Feb. 25.

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Additionally, there’s no reason to believe this means Kovalchuk’s NHL return is imminent. There were reports in March 2015 that Kovalchuk was possibly considering a return for the 2016-17 season, but that would require approval from all 30 teams. The New Jersey Devils, who Kovalchuk last played for in 2012-13, hold his rights after he shockingly retired from the NHL in July 2013 with 12 years and $77 million remaining on a 15-year, $100-million deal. Kovalchuk ended his NHL career with 417 goals and 816 points in 816 games, including two 50-goal campaigns.

Since returning to the KHL in 2013, Kovalchuk has been an effective player, but nowhere near the superstar one might expect. In 149 games, he has 57 goals and 144 points, but has never finished higher than 12th in league scoring. He wasn’t a standout on the world stage, either. At the 2015 World Championship, he helped Russia to a silver medal, but wasn’t named as one of the club’s top players at the end of the tournament.