by Chris Lingebach

WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Ilya Kovalchuk walloped the hockey community Thursday with his sudden announcement that he was retiring to return home to Russia, leaving $77 million on the table just three seasons into a 15-year, $100 million contract he signed with the New Jersey Devils in 2010.

Kovalchuk, 30, cited wanting to be home with his family as his reason for leaving, although that does nothing to lessen the blow for Devils fans, especially with the rumor that he may sign in the KHL in less than 24 hours.

Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates, who spent two season with Kovalchuk as an assistant for the Devils from 2010 to 2012, can’t believe it either.

“I’m really, really bummed,” Oates told 106.7 The Fan’s Lavar and Dukes Thursday. “He’s one of the superstars of the league, and you know, we’re obviously going to miss him.”

As everyone struggles to digest the shock of Kovalchuk’s announcement, all that’s left is to determine the impact of a seemingly precedent-setting move, should he indeed sign a KHL contract Friday.

“I think our league has an agreement with the KHL that, when players sign contracts in the NHL they can’t go home and play,” Oates said of Kovalchuk potentially playing in Russia. “Now maybe I’m wrong on that, but that’s what I thought. If that was the case, it would put our teams in jeopardy of losing a player like Ovechkin, for example, or Bäckström, or these guys where, how could you sign them to long-term deals and build your team around guys if all of a sudden, they can go back home?”

While New Jersey is the only party affected in the immediate future, the dangerous precedent his retirement could potentially set, spells uncertainty for the rest of the league as it relates to long-term deals for Russian stars of tomorrow.

Ovechkin, who’s friends with Kovalchuk and played in the KHL prior to the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, even threatened to remain in Russia had part of his salary been a casualty of that lockout.

And comments Ovechkin made upon his return ring eerily familiar to the reason Kovalchuk cited for leaving.

From SB Nation [Jan. 2013]:

“First of all, I was in my hometown with my family and my friends. … it was a good thing. [I] play for my home team in front of my old fans … I think I have a very good experience there, I can see why [Dynamo were KHL] champions last year.”

“Maybe retiring creates a loophole, but obviously that’s a weird loophole,” Oates said, unclear of what this could mean for the future. “And you know what, there’s been no precedent set, so I don’t know. I really don’t.”

He expressed sympathy for the Devils organization in being left to deal with the fallout of a very difficult situation, you know, the type of situation a team faces when their franchise player up and leaves with 12 years left on his deal.

“But you’re dealing with a general manager, Lou Lamoriello, who has dealt with adversity before, and I’m sure he’ll be able to pull his organization through,” Oates offered.

“They have a good coaching staff. They have a good nucleus. They’re going to miss his talents, no question, but you know what, as a group, I’m sure they’ll do the same thing that we would do here,” he said. “You move on. You figure out ways and you try and build from within, and maybe they’ll get some money from the league. Who knows. But you know what, it’s a very devastating move on the surface.”

Here’s to hoping the Capitals never know what that feels like.

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