(Reuters) - New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk, a former number one draft pick who blossomed into one of the game's top snipers, is retiring from the National Hockey League (NHL), the team said on Thursday.
The 30-year-old Russian's decision to retire from the NHL came as a surprise since he will be leaving behind a reported $77 million from the $100 million contract he signed 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," Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello said in a statement.
"On behalf of the entire organization, I wish Ilya and his family all the best in their future endeavors."
Taken with the first pick in the 2001 draft by the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk quickly established himself has one of the league's top scoring threats. He twice topped 50 goals in a season and on four other occasions potted more than 40.
Over 11 NHL seasons with Atlanta and New Jersey, the three time All-Star collected 816 points (417 goals, 399 assists) in 816 games.
Kovalchuk claimed the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal scorer with 41 tallies in the 2003-04 season but never won a Stanley Cup.
He spent part of last season in Russia playing in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) while NHL owners and players battled over a new collective bargaining agreement.
When a new deal was in place Kovalchuk returned to the Devils for the shortened season but had expressed interest in returning to play in Russia.
It is speculated that Kovalchuk will sign with a KHL club and he is expected to be a member of the Russian Olympic team at next year's Sochi Winter Games.
"This decision was something I have thought about for a long time going back to the lockout and spending the year in Russia," Kovalchuk, who has played in three Olympics for Russia and eight world championships, said in a statement.
"Though I decided to return this past season, Lou was aware of my desire to go back home and have my family there with me.
"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."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)