By JOHN WAWROW, AP Hockey Writer
New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero is on the verge of landing yet another asset in his team’s rebuilding plan: Ilya Kovalchuk.
Shero confirmed on Tuesday that Kovalchuk would like to return to the NHL next season, four years after the former No. 1 draft pick bolted to play in his native Russia. With the Devils still owning Kovalchuk’s rights, Shero said he’s keeping all options open after having preliminary discussions with the player’s agent.
Under NHL rules, Kovalchuk must re-sign with the Devils and can’t do so until the league’s free-agency period opens on July 1. That doesn’t preclude the possibility of the Devils signing and then trading the player.
And there are no rules preventing the Devils or Kovalchuk from contacting other teams and negotiating the framework of a potential sign-and-trade deal.
Whatever happens, Kovalchuk’s pending return to North America marks yet another boost for a Devils team that missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year and finished last in the Eastern Conference standings. Last month, New Jersey bucked the odds by winning the NHL draft lottery and jumping four spots for the right to the No. 1 pick.
The 34-year-old Kovalchuk who was a nine-time 30-goal scorer in 11 NHL seasons. He spent the past four years playing for St. Petersburg SKA of the Kontinental Hockey League, where he combined for 89 goals and 222 points in 209 games. Last season, Kovalchuk finished third in the KHL with 32 goals and second with 78 points.
Kovalchuk was selected by the then-Atlanta Thrashers with the first pick in the 2001 draft. He spent seven-plus seasons in Atlanta, before being traded to New Jersey during the 2009-10 season.
The following summer, the Devils signed Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract which the NHL rejected in ruling the deal was structured to circumvent the salary cap. The contract was reworked with the two sides signing a 15-year deal worth $100 million.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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