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The New Jersey Devils and the National Hockey League may have a big problem on their hands once the new collective bargaining agreement is signed.

European and Russian born players will want to stay in the Kontinental Hockey League to play the remainder of the season thus voiding their National Hockey League contract.

Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the biggest stars in the NHL and current member of SKA St. Petersburg, is considering that option. According to Slava Malamud, a U.S. based correspondent for Russian sports daily Sports-Express, Kovalchuk said, “I want to stay in shape and will need to read the agreement before deciding on what I want to do.”

However, Kovalchuk may have no choice in the decision to return to the Devils and fulfill the contract he signed.

The NHL has a transfer agreement with the KHL that KHL will not allow players under contract in the NHL to pay in Russia-based league. That agreement did not apply while the NHL locked out its players, but when the lockout is officially lifted after ratification, players would be required to return and honor their contracts.

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According an email sent by deputy commissioner Bill Daly to the associated press, who was in contact with the KHL, and confirmed “They [KHL] would not permit a player who is under a valid and binding NHL SPC to continue play in the NHL once the lockout is officially lifted. They have confirmed their intention to honor this agreement to us.”

However, Alexander Medvedev, who is the president of the KHL and owner of SKA St. Petersburg have suggested the league might challenge whether contracts signed in the NHL under the expired collective bargaining agreement are still legally binding because of changes in the new CBA.

This could open “Pandora’s Box,” for the KHL trying to keep even more players who signed contracts to play in the league during the lockout from returning to their NHL teams after ratification of the new CBA.

Medvedev said in an interview with Sports Daily in Russia, translated by Slava Malamud, “The new CBA may be a basis for terminating existing contracts, some players will stay.”

Daly maintains the NHL’s stance that a contract signed under the old CBA will be binding under the new CBA regardless of the changes made in the document. Daly had no response except “We will see what happens,” when asked about the KHL trying to challenge existing NHL contracts.

Kovalchuk signed a 15-year, $100 million contract with New Jersey in 2010. The Devils lost drafts picks and had to rework the original contract to keep him on the team.

And while many Devils fans are worried that Kovalchuk may not be coming back to help the team, General Manager and President Lou Lamoriello has no such fear.

“I have no knowledge of anything other than him coming back,” Lamoriello told reporters via telephone interview.

Neither Kovalchuk nor his agent Jay Grossman have not spoken out on the matter, but Grossman is working on arrangements for Kovalchuk and one of his other clients Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov to return to North America as soon as possible.

To add even more intrigue and suspense to the story, it has been reported by Pavel Lysenkov of Soviety Sport that Kovalchuk is the only current NHL player that is going to play in the KHL All Star Game this Sunday.

Via Tom Gulitti of the Fire and Ice:

Lysenkov spoke with KHL vice president Vladimir Shalaev, who explained why Kovalchuk is still scheduled to play in the game.

“The CBA will not be signed until Sunday,” Shalaev told Lysenkov. “So Kovalchuk (has) no employment relationship with the NHL, and he is going to Chelyabinsk. …We are disappointed that all the other NHL stars were quick to go to North America. …  Will Kovalchuk play in the KHL till the end of this season? Do not hurry up. Wait till Sunday…”

Other notable players that were suppose to play in the game, but have reportedly left for North America were Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin, Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk, and Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.

If Kovalchuk were to stay in KHL, there would serious consequences from the IIHF, who oversees Olympic hockey. With the Olympics coming to Sochi in 2014, Russia does not want to do anything that would jeopardize player participation. If Kovalchuk were not to honor his NHL contract he could be suspended and miss playing in front of his home fans.

Many players were outspoken prior to the lockout especially Kovalchuk and Ovechkin, who both stated “they do not rule out the possibility of staying in Russia if there is a reduction of our salaries in the NHL.” Well, Ovechkin left his KHL team the minute the tentative agreement was announced.

It is a wait and see process with Kovalchuk. The league and the Devils will have to let the story play out. But in the end, Kovalchuk will be wearing a Devils sweater this season.

However, the league may still have a legal battle on their hands as Lubomir Visnovsky has adamantly stated, “I have decided to stay and continue my career in the KHL for the remainder of the 2012-13 season.”

Everyone understands he wants to play in front of family and friends and not for the New York Islanders, where he was traded to them during the off-season. However, he may not have choice in the matter either and the league is banking on the KHL honoring the NHL contracts.

The hockey world will find out soon enough what transpires with these two players.








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