On February 4th, 2010 the New Jersey Devils traded Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier and a first round pick to the then Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for Anssi Salmela and the much bigger piece in the deal: Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk did not exactly fit the Devils mold when they acquired him, as he was a high-scoring player who paid little attention to defense, the opposite of the team’s philosophy, but they allowed the second half of the 2009-2010 season to be a trial run for him. The parties felt good enough about each other and the time they spent together that season to agree to a 17-year, $102 million deal, which was ultimately rejected by the NHL, leading to a loss of a first round draft pick and a $3 million fine, he would later agree to a 15-year, $100 million deal.
The next season brought trouble for the Devils, as new head coach John MacLean was brought to the team, but lasted just 33 games before being fired with a 9-22-2 record and Jacques Lemaire, the coach from the prior year, returned to the bench. Once that happened everything began to turn around for Kovalchuk with the Devils. Lemaire helped Kovalchuk turn into a quality defensive player as well as an offensive sniper, something that is incredibly valuable in today’s NHL. The fact that they were able to couple him with another player like that in Zach Parise made it even better and created a great deal of promise for 2011-2012.
In 2011-2012, the Devils finished the season 48-28-6 and made a great run in the playoffs to reach the Stanley Cup Final, before losing in six games to the Los Angeles Kings. Kovalchuk scored just one goal and had no assists in the finals and had 8 goals and 11 assists in 23 playoff games. Unfortunately the team lost captain Zach Parise in the off-season and people have been blaming Kovalchuk for Parise’s departure because of his gigantic contract eating up resources that could have been used on Parise.
During the 2012-2013 NHL lockout, Kovalchuk played in the KHL in Russia and loved being close to his family and playing in his native land. He showed up a little late to NHL camp in order to participate in the KHL All-Star Game and also stated that he loved being so close to his family all the time. He said that he had contractual obligations in the United States that would be difficult to break and ultimately did decide to return to the Devils this past season, when the team struggled, missing the playoffs.
After looking at all of this data, it is very easy to blame Kovalchuk and say that he is taking the easy way out, wasn’t worth the money, say it is his fault that we lost other players and now he is leaving, but these comments are all immature and unfair.
Former players have been tweeting recently that Kovalchuk never wanted to be in the NHL. Andrew Peters, Kovalchuk’s former teammate tweeted:
” My thoughts on Kovy going back to the KHL? Good! Most (not all) of them should charter a plane back to USSR together and stay there. Let the guys who actually want to be here have a spot”
Jeremy Roenick would tweet: ” I’m so irate right now. I feel bad for Lou lamoriello. Gave a 100 million dollar contract to a player who has no care for the NHL!”
These comments are both incredibly short-sighted and unfair! Many people are accusing Kovalchuk of not ever having wanted to be in the NHL, but they are forgetting that the KHL offered Kovalchuk the same exact contract that the NHL rejected in an attempt to lure him away back in 2010, but Kovalchuk refused every offer to stay in NHL and ultimately with the Devils. This evidence shows that Kovalchuk did want to play in the NHL when he signed the contract and intended to for the foreseeable future. Now what could have happened between now and then? The NHL lockout!
Kovalchuk was able to play in front of large crowds, just as he did in the NHL, while being around family all year and that was something he obviously enjoyed…and can you blame him. I certainly can’t blame a married man with three children for not wanting to have to fly ten hours to see his family when the same job is available near the family for the same pay. I can’t imagine having to be alone in another country ten hours away from my family for 7-9 months of every year…can you? People can say all that they want that Kovalchuk is being selfish by doing this, but they need to answer the question of who should Kovalchuk be worrying about. It is certainly not me and my fellow Devils fans, the Devils organization, or the NHL, it has to be him and his family’s best interests and happiness. Situations change over time. Are you still working the same job that you were when Kovalchuk signed this contract? There is a very good chance that you are not and you left because of your own best interests (and possibly your family’s). Just because Kovalchuk works in a public business, it is hard for me to blame a guy for acting that way. The Devils obviously believe that because they are allowing him to get out of the rest of his contract and join a KHL team, when they could have told him that if he wants to leave that he will have to stop playing hockey, because they are going to enforce an international agreement. They may do that if they felt like Kovalchuk was just using them, but this is obviously not the case.
The idea that Kovalchuk never cared about the Devils is also something that people need to stop stating, because it is also an unfounded criticism. If he never cared about this team would he have changed his game dramatically from a purely offensive player who does not care at all about keeping the puck out of his own net to a quality two-way hockey player? If he never cared about this team would he have played through a debilitating back injury during the entire 2012 playoffs and fought them to the finals. If he didn’t care about his team and was simply planning to bolt would he have returned to play the last week of last regular season with a shoulder injury in an attempt to get the team to the playoffs when the chances of success were slim? The answer to all these questions is no and the idea that he never cared about the Devils is just reactionary and immature.
The last ridiculous criticism that Kovalchuk is now facing is that his contract was already clogging up the team’s resources, making it difficult to sign other players (especially Zach Parise), and now he is leaving, compounding the problem. This criticism is also unfair because Lou Lamoriello and Parise both stated that the Devils financial offer was not a problem and that he only left to go home to Minnesota and be around his family (sound familiar) and that the Devils did not choose Kovalchuk over Parise and then have Kovalchuk bolt the team a year later. People are stating that Kovalchuk could have at least made his decision before free agency, so that maybe the Devils could re-sign David Clarkson, or go after another scorer to replace Kovalchuk. This is not even entirely a fair criticism, but does have some merit. While it would have been nice to have another scorer, from the sound of Lamoriello, it seems like he has known of Kovalchuk’s decision for a while and it just went unannounced, so to say that he did not tell them in time is probably unfair.
As a Devils fan I am sad to see Kovalchuk go. He represented this organization admirably both on and off the ice over the last three years. I thought we would have him here for much longer than that, but it obviously will not be the case. With that being said I am happy for Kovalchuk the man, because now he gets to be around his family and playing the game he loves somewhere where he obviously feels more comfortable.