Ilya Kovalchuk to play in Russia

NEW YORK -- On the heels of the NHL lockout that began Sunday, New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk is headed home to his native Russia to play hockey during the work stoppage.

Kovalchuk will join SKA St. Petersburg of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, his agent confirmed to ESPNNewYork.com. The 29-year-old winger is not expected to begin playing until Sept. 23.

Kovalchuk, who led the Devils with 83 points (37 goals, 46 assists) last season, is one of the headliners of a group of players who have opted to play overseas during the lockout.

Joining Kovalchuk in the KHL will be Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin and Ottawa Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who signed with Metallurg. New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit is headed to his native Switzerland to play with his hometown team in Bern, agent Pat Brisson confirmed to ESPNNewYork.com.

The standard contract signed in such cases includes an opt-out clause, meaning Kovalchuk and his fellow NHL players would be able to return home once the lockout ends. Kovalchuk's contract with the Devils, signed in 2010, is worth $100 million over 15 years.

As the multiple signings suggest, there is little optimism that the NHL season will begin on time with the league and union still trying to bridge a significant gulf while brokering a new deal.

The two sides remain far apart on the key economic issues and have not had formal discussions since trading proposals last Wednesday. There have been informal discussions between NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr since -- the two spoke over the phone Sunday evening --but no formal meetings have been scheduled.

The two plan to speak again Tuesday, Daly told ESPN New York via email.