NEWARK, N.J. -- When the New Jersey Devils signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a contract that eventually became a 15-year deal worth US$100 million, it stunned the NHL.

But that was nothing compared to Kovalchuk's decision to retire and walk away from the final 12 years and $77 million of it.

Kovalchuk's announcement Tuesday to return home to Russia came several months after the superstar considered staying there in the wake of the NHL lockout. The 30-year-old said in a statement that he has thought for a long time about moving home for good.

"Though I decided to return this past season, (general manager Lou Lamoriello) was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me," Kovalchuk said. "The most difficult thing for me is to leave the New Jersey Devils, a great organization that I have a lot of respect for, and our fans that have been great to me."

Kovalchuk had 417 goals and 399 assists in 816 games over 11 NHL seasons spent with the Atlanta Thrashers and Devils. He was the first overall pick of the Thrashers in 2001 and was a face of that franchise before being traded to New Jersey in 2010.

"After many conversations with Ilya over the past year on his desire to retire from the National Hockey League, Ilya's decision became official today," Lamoriello said in a statement. "On behalf of the entire organization, I wish Ilya and his family all the best in their future endeavours."

Kovalchuk's original deal with the Devils was for 17 years and US$102 million. It was ruled cap circumvention by the NHL because Kovalchuk would have been 44 years old when it was over.

The Devils must forfeit their 2014 first-round pick as punishment for the circumvention after they opted to keep their selections in 2012 and 2013. They will also be charged $250,000 against the salary cap through 2024-25 as a result of Kovalchuk's retirement.

The rest of the nearly $6.7-million hit will come off New Jersey's cap. The Devils lost winger David Clarkson in free agency but re-signed Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus earlier this off-season.

It was speculated but not confirmed that Kovalchuk will continue his playing career in the Kontinental Hockey League.