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Ilya Kovalchuk 'drives the bus' on NHL return, Devils waiting

GM Ray Shero says decision will come from forward, who has competed in KHL past four seasons

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- Forward Ilya Kovalchuk is still interested in returning to the NHL next season, but New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero does not appear to be holding his breath waiting for him to make a decision.

"As far as I know, that's still the plan," Shero told at the NHL Scouting Combine on Thursday. "Kovalchuk kind of drives the bus on this in terms of talking to teams or where he could want to play."

The Devils hold the NHL rights of Kovalchuk, 34, who voluntarily retired from the League on July 11, 2013, with 12 years and $77 million remaining on a 15-year, $100 million contract he signed with New Jersey on Sept. 3, 2010. He signed a four-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League in his native Russia on July 15, 2013.

When Kovalchuk left the NHL, his contract was terminated and he was placed on the voluntary retirement list. That allowed the Devils to maintain his NHL rights until he turns 35, which would be April 15, 2018.

Prior to turning 35, if Kovalchuk wants to sign with another team, he would need approval from all 31 NHL teams. That's unlikely to happen, but the Devils could sign Kovalchuk and either keep him or trade him.

Kovalchuk is free to speak to other NHL teams about a potential trade, according to Shero, who said a sign-and-trade has to make sense for the Devils. Kovalchuk cannot sign until July 1 and is not eligible for the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft.

"I can't go out calling teams because that's a waste of my time," Shero said. "He's going to tell [us] where he wants to play, and in the end, if that does work out and it's not the Devils, then I've got to see if that makes sense for us to do that."

Shero said he spoke to Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, on Wednesday.

"If tomorrow he decides to stay in Russia, OK, but who knows?" Shero said. "That's his call in the end. Right now nothing, according to [Grossman], has changed and he would like to pursue [NHL] opportunities."

If Kovalchuk returns after he turns 35, he would become an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any NHL team without permission.

Kovalchuk, selected by the Atlanta Thrashers with the No. 1 pick of the 2001 NHL Draft, had 816 points (417 goals, 399 assists) in 816 games with the Thrashers and Devils. He scored 52 goals twice and at least 30 goals nine times in 11 seasons.

The Thrashers traded Kovalchuk to the Devils with defenseman Anssi Salmela and a second-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft for defenseman Johnny Oduya, forward Niclas Bergfors, center Patrice Cormier and first- and second-round picks in the 2010 draft, on Feb. 4, 2010.

In 2011-12, Kovalchuk's first full season with the Devils, he had 83 points (37 goals, 46 assists) and helped them reach the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.

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