Kovalchuk brings style to Devils
Ilya Kovalchek has a combination of size and skill the Devils have never had
Kovalchuk will have to adjust to the buttoned-up style of the Devils
NHL observers feel Kovalchuk will likely only be a rental player for the Devils
NEWARK, N.J. -- Not that Ilya Kovalchuk needed any help recognizing his worth, but when esteemed Devils GM Lou Lamoriello flies out to Washington D.C. (where the Thrashers played the Capitals on Friday night) to pick you up, certainly, you can't help but feel a little special. And that's just what Kovalchuk is: a special type of player that the Devils organization has perhaps never seen before.
At 6'2" and 230 pounds, Kovalchuk brings more size than just about everybody on their roster -- save enforcer-type Andrew Peters who comes in at 6-4, 247. Add Kovy's all-world skill level, and he has the potential to put New Jersey over the top. He adds a booming shot from the point to raise the Devils' power play, currently ranked 11th in the league at 19 percent. And wherever and however he fits in on 5-on-5 situations, he will make a significant impact.
New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire said Friday that he'd put Kovalchuk in the elite category of players who can make things happen on a line by themselves. "Take [Capitals winger Alex] Ovechkin as an example. He could do a lot of things on his own, but if they don't have the guys who are playing with him, that complement him very well, that move the puck well, he's still good, but not as good," he said. "And that's what I'm saying about Kovy. He's a great player, and he can do some things on his own, but if he has the right player with him, that will make him as good as he can be."
Conversely, he can make those around him better. In his first game as a Devil Friday night, Kovalchuk picked up his first Devil assist, whipping a backhand pass into the slot for Dainius Zubrus, who roofed a shot by Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson, despite being draped by two defenders. And then in the final minute, with the Devils down 3-2 and on the power play, Kovalchuk got his second assist, drawing a defender to him at the point. He slipped a pass to Dean McAmmond, who found Travis Zajac open to tie the game with 43.7 seconds left. Riding on a wave of momentum, Jay Pandolfo knocked in the game winner 24.8 seconds later, and the Devils eked out the win in a dashing finish.
But perhaps even more important than what Kovalchuk did is what the Toronto Maple Leafs were forced to do, and certainly what the Rangers will have to do Saturday. "Just his presence, they have to watch him all the time. I have a good view of it," says goalie Martin Brodeur. "Whenever he's on the ice, everybody's looking around to see where he is, and that's something we never had. I remember when we played Atlanta and it was a tight game, the last four minutes of the game were hell just because of Kovalchuk."
All of a sudden, the Devils become one of a handful of NHL teams (Pittsburgh, Washington, Detroit, to name a few) that present the pick-your-poison dilemma. With Zach Parise, a 40-goal scorer in his own right, on one line and Kovalchuk on another, it's the kind of depth that gives opposing coaches a headache. And when you put the two together on the power play, that will make for some entertaining hockey. Yeah, that's right; entertaining hockey in New Jersey.
Now, does Kovalchuk have to adapt to the Devils buttoned-up style? To a certain degree, this has to be expected. On the topic, Lemaire says he'll ask just one thing: "When he gets in our end, he will have to stop. That's all. The rest, he can do anything he wants." Now, that's probably first day excitement talking a little bit, but for Kovalchuk to click into the Devils' system, he will have to find a modest interest in puck battles and in backchecking, and this is where Kovalchuk could really benefit from a stint in New Jersey. He took pride in saying he was +1 in Atlanta this season (before mentioning he is -84 in his career), and maybe this is a chance to help round out his game.
"This is the first time in my career that I've got a chance to play for a first class organization that's won three Stanley Cups," he said. "You just look around the locker room, guys like Marty Brodeur, legends in the game. It's a great system here. I just talked to the coaches, and they know what they're doing. I'm really looking forward to tonight's game and the opportunity to do some damage during the playoffs."
Here, Kovalchuk isn't the savior, the player that gets this team into the playoffs; New Jersey is headed there with or without him, as it has every year since 1996. No, Kovalchuk goes to a team that already has All-Stars, an identity and a proven system where he can find his place for the next few months. Hopes beyond that rest only with New Jersey's most ardent optimists, for Kovalchuk is -- at least for now -- a rental player.
"Their deal is different from ours," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, whose team added defenseman Dion Phaneuf and goalie J.S. Giguere with trades Sunday that jolted the market awake. "It looks like a rental to me, but you never know. Lou's always managed to pull a rabbit out of his hat and be creative in how he handles salaries on his team. Ours is definitely more for the future. New Jersey's deal is for the moment."
Kovalchuk's agent Jay Grossman said Friday that he and Lamoriello have not addressed his client's prospects beyond this season and wouldn't comment on the likelihood Kovalchuk would be open to a paycut-for-the-Cup sort of deal. They're more interested in seeing how he acclimates and fits into the Devils before thinking about July 1, he says.
But it seems unfathomable that Lamoriello would offer what the Thrashers had on the table. First of all, that would be about twice what Brodeur makes ($5.2 million per season). And while it doesn't seem like the Devils have a problem with paying somebody more than Brodeur (Patrik Elias has a $6 million cap hit), $10+ million a year would effectively rob them of their depth, which has become a defining feature of the Devils. How often has New Jersey taken an injury to a key player in stride? Or seen a big contributor walk away from the team and still come back just as strong? Even after watching Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan and Brian Rafalski walk away over the last several years, the Devils still make the playoffs, much to the confusion of some of us who presage the playoffs in the preseason. What would debilitate other teams, New Jersey find a way to play through, a testament to the organization's stability.
As rentals go, though, Kovalchuk is a two-story penthouse overlooking the Hudson. To get that, even just for a few months, is a blessing. And the move is an aggressive challenge to the East, if not the rest of the league. After the Olympic break, when New Jersey expects to return injured pieces back into their lineup -- defenseman Paul Martin, forwards David Clarkson and Elias are currently out -- they will have a very impressive team on paper, maybe even impressive enough to vault them over conference darlings Washington and Pittsburgh.
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