Kovalchuk's retirement is stunning

Ilya Kovalchuk's tenure in New Jersey is over -- just three years after it began.

The superstar winger, arguably one of the top-five players in the National Hockey League, stunned the hockey world Thursday, announcing his retirement from the NHL.

Just 30 years old, Kovalchuk decided to forgo the final 12 years and $77 million remaining on his massive contract with the New Jersey Devils to leave for the Kontinental Hockey League in his native Russia.

According to Russian media reports, Kovalchuk will play for SKA St. Petersburg next season.

When the Devils sent out the news release saying Kovalchuk had retired, I thought they'd been hacked.

It couldn't be true. But it was. Kovalchuk realized just how much he missed playing in Russia during the lockout, and was reluctant to leave when it was over.

Home is where the heart is, and Ilya Kovalchuk's heart was always in Russia. Now he can be there -- and likely flourish there, given his immense skill and talent. After all, the man scored 417 NHL goals, all but one before his 30th birthday.

In the short term, his decision leaves the Devils with a massive void on their top line and top power-play unit. After signing Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder, it appeared that the Devils had four extremely capable scoring lines once again.

That's not the case anymore, leaving GM Lou Lamoriello to scramble for a "replacement" -- though I use the term extremely loosely, because you can't replace Kovalchuk.

Certainly not this late in the free-agency game.

In the long term, however, the Devils acquired a massive amount of cap space and don't have to worry about what would've been a likely decline in Kovalchuk's production as he aged.

And this, of course, is the Devils we're talking about. They always seem to take punches -- only to deliver the final blow.

Still, this one hurts.

During their glory days, the Devils were built on defense and goaltending. But when they acquired Kovalchuk in a blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Thrashers in February 2010, it appeared that philosophy would change.

Kovalchuk was flashy, fast, skilled -- and not exactly the most responsible player in his own end. Whatever. The Devils needed scoring, and for the most part, he provided it with his rocket of a shot.

The Devils retained Kovalchuk's services that offseason with a record 17-year, $102 million contract -- but the NHL rejected the front-loaded deal and penalized the Devils a future first-round pick on the grounds that they circumvented the salary cap. Kovalchuk and the Devils ended up settling on a 15-year, $100 million pact.

The Devils missed the playoffs in Kovalchuk's first full season, but ended up in the Stanley Cup finals in Year 2. After the season, the team lost its heart and soul when captain Zach Parise left New Jersey for his hometown Minnesota Wild.

With Parise gone and future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur nearing retirement, the Devils became Kovalchuk's team. But Kovalchuk and Brodeur were hurt for large parts of last season, and the Devils failed to qualify for the postseason yet again.

It looked as though the team would be poised to make a run in 2013-14, given its roster additions. But it's going to be much tougher now.

Newly acquired Cory Schneider is the goaltender of the future. Kovalchuk was supposed to be the franchise's leading scorer for several more seasons.

But his sudden retirement has left the Devils with a massive hole.

No more Parise. No more Kovalchuk. No first-rounder next season -- and perhaps, no more Brodeur either.

Now what?