"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia," Kovalchuk said in a statement released by the team. "Though I decided to return this past season, [general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me. The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me."
Games: 816 | +/-: -116
Lamoriello said Kovalchuk, 30, signed his voluntary retirement papers, and the team has voided the remaining 12 years of the contract with the player. The voiding of the remainder of the deal opens the door for Kovalchuk to play in the Kontinental Hockey League this season.
Kovalchuk, a native of Tver, Russia, served as captain of SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL during the lockout last season and had 42 points in 36 games.
Lamoriello said he was not surprised by Kovalchuk's decision, saying talks on this issue began in January.
"This goes back to the lockout and prior to coming back, his thought process of staying in Russia was there," Lamoriello said Thursday during a conference call. "He was here a little late [for training camp] and then there was no conversation whatsoever throughout the year about it. Then it recently resurfaced, and his desire was to retire from the National Hockey League, and the only way he could do that was to sign his voluntary retirement papers, which he did."
Lamoriello said he was informed of Kovalchuk's decision but refused to discuss what was said, saying, "Any conversation I had with Ilya was personal."
The GM also said he was focused on the future, starting immediately.
"I'm looking forward," he said. "I'm not thinking of anything that's just transpired. I'm not going to allow anything to get in the way of what I have to do as far as distracting myself."
Kovalchuk had 12 years and $77 million remaining on the 15-year, $100 million contract he signed with New Jersey in September 2010, which was a re-working of the 17-year, $102 million deal he agreed to months earlier that had been voided by the NHL for circumvention of the salary cap.
The Devils were penalized $3 million and lost two draft picks: a third-round choice in 2011 and a first-round pick between 2011 and 2014; that penalty, at the Devils' discretion, was deferred to 2014.
Lamoriello would not comment on any discussions he might have had with the League as far as recapturing the draft pick.
Kovalchuk's departure frees up more than $6 million in salary-cap space for the Devils, allowing the club to be more active in free agency. But the Devils will have to pay between $250,000 and $300,000 per year in cap-benefit recapture fees for each of the next dozen years.
"Right now we just have to take a step back to go forward," Lamoriello said. 'We'll just have to re-evaluate what our options are and do the best we can, but we'll be ready to play when September comes."
Kovalchuk leaves the NHL after 11 seasons; he had 417 goals and 399 assists for 816 points in 816 games. After being taken by the Atlanta Thrashers with the first pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, Kovalchuk had 29 goals as a rookie in 2001-02. He scored at least 30 goals in each of the next nine seasons, including six in a row with at least 40 from 2002-03 to 2009-10.
He won the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2003-04 with 41 goals, and scored a career-best 52 in 2005-06, when he also totaled a career-best 98 points.
Kovalchuk was traded to the Devils by the Thrashers on Feb. 4, 2010, along with Anssi Salmela and a 2010 second-round draft pick in exchange for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and first- and second-round picks in the 2010 draft. His best season with New Jersey came in 2011-12, when he had 38 goals and 83 points in 77 games while earning First-Team All-Star honors, then had 19 points in 23 Stanley Cup Playoff games to help the Devils reach the Final.
That was the best for the Devils in the Kovalchuk era, which ends after 222 games in parts of four seasons, two of which saw the Devils make the playoffs.
"We're going to put the best possible team we can on the ice," Lamoriello said. "That's the most important thing. [Fan] support has been there consistently throughout the ups and downs so I know they'll be there likewise. This wasn't a decision by the New Jersey Devils."