Ilya Kovalchuk stunned the New Jersey Devils and the NHL on Thursday, abruptly announcing his retirement from the league so he could continue his career in the KHL.
Not only will Kovalchuk’s decision cost the Devils an annual cap penalty for the next decade and their first-round pick in 2014′s draft, but it leaves them without their best offensive weapon. Kovalchuk scored 30 goals nine times in his NHL career, and he topped the 50-goal mark twice.
There are no comparable replacements available for New Jersey to chase now, but ex-Detroit Red Wings forward Damien Brunner might serve as part of their Plan B.
Wings GM Ken Holland said last week that he expects Brunner to “move on” after Brunner rejected Detroit’s contract offers for a shot at free agency. The 27-year-old Brunner scored 12 goals (one more than Kovalchuk) during the lockout-shortened season; he finished with 26 points.
CBS’ Adam Gretz pitched Brunner as a fallback option for the Devils, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mikhail Grabovski. Pucks and Pitchforks did the same, tossing out Brunner’s name with Jagr, Grabovski and Brendan Morrow, but cautioning, “None of these players come close to Kovalchuk’s performance, but would seriously help the Devils next season.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Brunner’s new contract will land, mostly since Brunner has all of 44 regular-season NHL games under his belt. He made $1.35 million during the 2013 season, so an average of at least $2 million per year seems realistic.
The Devils have more than enough money to swing that, with upwards of $10 million available now that Kovalchuk has departed. They also have the need for a goal-scoring winger who can play on the power play. Brunner fits that bill, and he could get a call from New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello soon — if he hasn’t already.
(Update, July 13: Reports indicate that the Devils are in the process of courting Brunner, and that a deal may be close.)