Ilya Kovalchuk still has not returned from Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, but do not worry New Jersey Devils fans. He plans to return January 15th, according to Tom Gulitti's Fire and Ice blog. It never was in question, really. Sure, he and other Russian stars like Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk love to play in their home country. Why wouldn't they? But to think Kovalchuk would actually defy the New Jersey Devils and the indulgent 15-year contract they offered him two years ago is simple over-anxiety. That would have been a brief legal battle won by the NHL.
Sure, you can let guy play in the KHL all-star game. The fans of SKA St. Petersburg voted him in and would love to see their countryman play. Heck, he is certainly a bigger celebrity in Russia than he is in the good ol' U.S. of A.
From an on-ice perspective this is not an earth shaker. Kovalchuk seems healthy and he'll be in good shape to play. It seems a safe bet to pencil him in for around 15-20 goals this shortened season. However, Kovalchuk's spurning of the start of training camp—he is the only Devil not expected to show up on time—leaves head coach Pete DeBoer in a tough position. Particularly, DeBoer's most obvious choice for team captain has to be second guessed.
Zach Parise is gone and it would be rubbing salt in the wound of any Devil's fan to discuss it further. In the vein of forwards not backwards, New Jersey would have liked to identify their leader quickly, and as far back as midsummer Kovalchuk was the front-runner.
Sure, his leadership was questioned when he wore the "C" in Atlanta, but he is turning 30 this year and has shown the intangibles you want in a captain. Namely, the fire and tenacity he displayed last postseason despite an increasingly injured back shows sign of maturation.
But this stubborn attitude—Datsyuk plans to play in the All-Star game as well—damages his credibility, and you have to wonder what kind of message DeBoer would send picking Kovalchuk as Captain.
There are other candidates on the roster. Patrik Elias captained these very Devils from 2006-2007, but has expressed a disinterest in carrying the letter since. Travis Zajac is the first line center and plays the game with heart, but is a free agent after this year and DeBoer would risk losing his captain to another team in two consecutive years. Adam Henrique is too young and Bryce Salvador is too old. All signs still point to the resident Russian sniper.
Pete DeBoer may well slap the "C" on Ilya Kovalchuk's chest when he returns. Maybe the star winger will put up an astronomical year. But what we can take away from this in the long term is that Kovalchuk is not entirely invested in the New Jersey Devils the way he should be. The fact that this team came so close to a championship last year only makes the situation more concerning.