According to Finnish news site Iltalehti.fi, trusted sources have informed the news outlet that Ilya Kovalchuk could be back in the NHL by 2016-17. Kovalchuk has reportedly informed his KHL club, SKA St. Petersburg, of his wish to return to North America following next season.
However, in order to come back to the NHL in two seasons time, Kovalchuk would need to receive the green light from all 30 NHL teams because he voluntarily retired. If he wishes to come back to the league without needing league-wide approval, Kovalchuk would have to wait until 2018-19, when he would be 35.
Kovalchuk, 31, shockingly retired from the NHL on July 11, 2013, three seasons into a 15-year, $100 million deal with the New Jersey Devils. When he retired, 12 years and $77 million remained on his contract with New Jersey. However, four days after his the surprise retirement, Kovalchuk inked a four-year deal with St. Petersburg said to be worth similar money to what he had been making as a Devil.
Tied tightly to the story is the crash of Russia's ruble, which not only decreases the real value of Kovalchuk's contract but could make it difficult for St. Petersburg to continue to pay him such a high salary.
If Kovalchuk waits until the 2018-19 season, he could come back as an unrestricted free agent. There's also another loophole for Kovalchuk, though: according to the New York Post's Larry Brooks, if Kovalchuk sits out an entire calendar year of hockey, he can re-enter the league without needing to receive approval. So, were he to sit out 2015-16, a 2016-17 return would be on the table.
Sitting out a season probably wouldn't drive down Kovalchuk's value, either, so it might be a risk worth taking for the veteran winger. Otherwise, he may just have to wait until after his 35th birthday to get his shot at coming back to the NHL.
Since leaving the NHL, Kovalchuk has tallied 41 goals and 95 points for St. Petersburg. Drafted first overall in 2001 by the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk registered 417 goals and 816 points in 816 games between Atlanta and New Jersey.