5 careers that ended far too early
Adam Hunger / USA TODAY Sports

Deciding when to call it quits on an NHL career is one of the toughest things a player has to do.

The scene is all too common: the player, sitting at a microphone with tears rolling down his eyes, as he announces to the world he will no longer competitively do the very thing he has done his whole life.

Sometimes, players are forced out of the game due to injuries. Other times, the reason is not so clear. Some hang up the skates when it seems like they could easily jump right back on the ice.

Here are the top five players to call it a career from the NHL too early:

Ilya Kovalchuk

New Jersey Devils fans might still not be over the fact that they lost one of the league's best goal-scorers for nothing.

Ilya Kovalchuk signed a 15-year, $100-million deal with the Devils in 2010, and the team looked to have locked up one of the league's premier snipers.

During the lockout-shortened season, Kovalchuck signed a temporary contract with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL. He returned to the Devils when NHL action resumed, posting 31 points in 37 games. But once the season ended, Kovalchuck announced his retirement from the NHL, returning to SKA.

Kovalchuck was named the team's captain and helped his club win the 2015 Gagarin Cup while capturing playoff MVP honors. At just 32, it is clear he could have continued to be a superstar in the NHL had he decided to stay.

Ken Dryden

Ken Dryden might go down in history as one of the greatest goaltenders to play the game despite only doing so for seven seasons. The Montreal Canadiens netminder joined the team during the 1970-71 season, helping the team capture the Stanley Cup while appearing in only six games.

Dryden was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, but didn't win the Calder Trophy until the following season, since he hadn't played enough games to be eligible in his rookie campaign. Dryden eventually won the Vezina Trophy five times in seven seasons.

He sat out the 1973-74 season amid a contract dispute, choosing instead to complete his law degree, and announced his retirement from the league at 31 years old in 1979 after winning his sixth Stanley Cup and fifth Vezina Trophy.

Having left the league following a Vezina Trophy season, it's clear Dryden still had plenty to give.

Tomas Vokoun

He didn't have quite the same career as Dryden, but the fact that Tomas Vokoun was forced to retire after not receiving a contract seems odd.

Vokoun had a solid career, playing the majority of it with the Nashville Predators and the Florida Panthers. He joined the Washington Capitals during the 2011-12 season, going 25-17-2 with a .916 save percentage and a 2.45 GAA in 48 games.

He joined the Pittsburgh Penguins as the backup behind Marc-Andre Fleury the following season, going 13-4-0 in 20 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. His .919 SP and three shutouts were better numbers than those posted by Fleury, who suited up in 33 contests.

In 2013-14, Vokoun appeared in two games for the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but his NHL days were done. It's hard to imagine an NHL team couldn't have used his services.

Zigmund Palffy

The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins missed the playoffs was in 2005-06. The team finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with just 58 points.

Despite having a forgettable season, the Penguins did have some bright spots: Sidney Crosby was lighting it up and forward Zigmund Palffy was contributing consistently.

Then, out of the blue on January 18, 2006, Palffy announced mid-season he was retiring from hockey. It was reportedly due to a nagging shoulder injury, which was unexpected because he had recorded 42 points in 42 games at that point. Only Crosby finished with a better points-per-game rate for the Penguins that season.

Palffy took the next year off from hockey before signing on to play in his native Slovakia. He played five seasons, racking up 151 goals and 383 points in 222 games - proving he could've continued being a prolific scorer in the NHL had he chosen to stay.

Martin St. Louis

Martin St. Louis made the bold decision to retire this summer. Though the New York Rangers forward was 40 years old, it looked as though he still had a lot left in the tank.

St. Louis capped off the 2014-15 season with a solid 21 goals and 52 points in 74 games. He was just three seasons removed from winning the Art Ross Trophy with the Tampa Bay Lightning, racking up 60 points in 48 games.

This offseason, St. Louis made it clear he was willing to return for another year, on the condition he ended his career as a Ranger. However, the team had other plans, and the idea of going to a team far away from his family was not an option, so St. Louis felt he had no choice but to hang up his skates for good.

5 careers that ended far too early
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