Don't boo Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils fans

Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire

It's an NHL tradition: a player leaves one team, returns with his new team and gets lustily booed by his former home supporters.

It'll happen, deafeningly, when John Tavares returns to face the New York Islanders later this month. It happened, bizarrely (given that his departure was via trade), when Ryan McDonagh returned to face the New York Rangers recently. And Ilya Kovalchuk expects it will happen when the Los Angeles Kings visit the Devils on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET, streaming on ESPN+), the first time the veteran winger is due to face his former team in New Jersey since he broke his contract and left for Russia's Kontinental Hockey League in 2013.

"I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing, but I love that, so it's all good," he said after the Kings' win over the Rangers on Monday night. As predictions go, this is a five-star, lead-pipe lock.

Walk around any game at Prudential Center and there will be one or two Devils fans with No. 17 jerseys and "TRAITOR" taped over Kovalchuk's nameplate, years after he left. They're still angry. They're still resentful. But the question is, should they really feel that way about Ilya Kovalchuk?

To reset the history: The Devils acquired Kovalchuk at the 2010 trade deadline from the Atlanta Thrashers (RIP), and then signed him to one of the most lucrative unrestricted free-agent contracts in history: 17 years and $102 million, an absurd cap-circumventing and eventually illegal contract that saw the last five years pay him $550,000 annually. The NHL rejected it, and the Devils revised the deal to 15 years and $100 million.

Kovalchuk would play 222 games with the Devils from 2010 to 2013, scoring 201 points and leading them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 with 19 points in 23 playoff games, at one point very much in the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation.

But in July 2013, he was gone. He announced his retirement from the NHL, leaving $77 million on the table, to return to Russia and play for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. The Devils terminated his contract, but retained his rights until last summer, when Kovalchuk was free to return to the NHL and sign with whomever he chose. (And he chose the team that defeated the Devils for the Cup in 2012, the Kings.)

Why did he leave? It was a combination of seeing the writing on the wall for a post-Martin Brodeur Devils franchise; his palpable anger towards the NHL after the 2012 lockout, and about issues like escrow in general; and his desire to bring his family back to Russia and become the face of the KHL for the oligarchs who more than made up for the money he left back in the NHL.

Who didn't stop him from leaving? The Devils.

They could have prevented him from going to Russia. They could have used IIHF transfer rules to block him from returning to the KHL. But they didn't, because Ilya Kovalchuk leaving was inherently good for the franchise:

• It saved them $77 million on the life of the contract.

• They didn't even lose the first-round pick that the NHL was going to dock them for the 17-year contract rejection. It's almost as if then-GM Lou Lamoriello was confident about this in not surrendering any late-round picks that could have settled the debt.

• It saved them enormously on cap recapture penalties. Keep in mind that Kovalchuk was always going to leave for Russia, likely around 2019 when the base salary of his 15-year contract dropped to $4 million. He signed his deal before the 2012 CBA made that type of contract toxic through the cap recapture clause, in which teams are penalized with dead cap space for contracts that give them a "cap benefit" on a long-term deal. Essentially, each year there's a difference between the player's salary and his cap hit, the money is tabulated for an eventual penalty if the player retires before that contract ends.

(Please recall Roberto Luongo's infamous "my contract sucks" declaration when the Vancouver Canucks struggled to move him.)

In the case of Kovalchuk, his departure to Russia saved the Devils enormously. Depending on when he left, the Devils could have been on the hook for multiple years at $5 million of dead cap space. To put things in perspective: That's an Andy Greene of dead cap space.

By leaving in Year 4 of his 15-year deal, Kovalchuk bailed the Devils out of a toxic contract. They have a cap recapture penalty of just $250,000 annually through 2025. That's couch-cushion small change in the NHL. He did them an enormous favor, and perhaps it's not a coincidence that Lamorielllo let him walk without a fight.

• Also, Lamoriello hated this contract. Then-owner Jeff Vanderbeek pushed him to re-sign Kovalchuk, and Lamoriello handed out a contract that he loathed and predicted would eventually have deleterious effects. "I would agree we shouldn't have these. But I'm also saying that because it's legal and this is something that ownership felt comfortable doing for the right reasons," he said when Kovalchuk signed for 17 years.

If you want to boo anyone, boo the former owner who pushed for a contract that ended up becoming a toxic asset. Boo the NHL's collective bargaining avarice, which jaded Kovalchuk and created a logical pathway through cap recapture for him to return to Russia years before it was contractually predicted he would. Boo the decision to trade for Kovalchuk in the first place, which did as much to disenchant franchise poster boy Zach Parise -- a top-line left wing who saw the team acquire another top-line left wing -- as the draw of moving to Minnesota did when he left for the Wild in 2012.

Booing Kovalchuk would be booing someone who put pen to paper to commit to the Devils, who had one of the best postseasons by any forward in franchise history to push them to an unlikely Stanley Cup Final appearance, and whose "abandonment" of the franchise saved them countless millions in salary cap penalties and, undoubtedly, years of physical decline after his peak.

That's frankly something to cheer. And these are obviously better reasons for leaving than, you know, having slept under bedsheets with another team's logo on them as a child. Right, Islanders fans?