Two summers ago, Ilya Kovalchuk was the biggest prize on the NHL free-agent market, and the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings went head to head for his services — a battle the Devils eventually won when they signed the superstar left-winger to a 15-year, $100 million contract.
These days, it’s nothing if not fitting that the road to the first Stanley Cup championship of Kovalchuk’s 10-year career goes right through L.A. and the franchise he spurned in 2010.
The Devils opened the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday with a 2-1 overtime loss at home against the Kings. Heading into the series, Kovalchuk admitted, reluctantly, that having the chance to raise the Cup by beating the Kings was extra motivation. “But the Stanley Cup Finals, that’s the biggest motivation," he said. "I don’t think you need anything else to go out there and play your best.”
Topping the Kings would certainly serve as the ultimate validation for Kovalchuk after turning down a 13-year, $85 million contract in L.A. But in truth, the decision to stay put wasn’t about money — or all that difficult — and if he had it to do over again, Kovalchuk would make the same choice, regardless of how these finals play out.
“I got traded to New Jersey and played here for two months,” Kovalchuk said, referring to the February 2010 deal that sent him from Atlanta to New Jersey. “The way people treated me here, I really liked it, and I knew that (general manager) Lou (Lamoriello) and the ownership would put a winning team on the ice, and that’s where I want to be.
"It wasn’t a doubt in my mind. First of all, my family loves it here. We have a good house, my daughter in a good school. I have two sons running around, fortunate with the good weather here. New York is close, too. We’re happy.”
The trade to New Jersey and subsequent decision to stick around was certainly the best move for Kovalchuk personally, but in addition to a change of scenery, the move also represented a change in mindset — one that the former Richard Trophy winner didn’t fully grasp until this season.
“In Atlanta, it was a one-man show, and you really felt that when you coached against him, you could see that he felt the weight of winning or losing the game on himself,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. “I think what we had to get him away from was we don’t have to do that.
“We’ve got 20 guys here, and you just have to do your part. It’s going to be a big part, but it’s not the whole part, and he did buy into that.”
Kovalchuk stumbled out of the gate in his first full season in Newark, scoring just 60 points (31 goals, 29 assists) in 81 games — his fewest since a 51-point performance in 65 games as an 18-year-old Thrashers rookie. His early struggles led many to question whether he was worth the $100 million the Devils had just invested into him.
Once he settled in, however, Kovalchuk returned to form, scoring 37 goals to go with 46 assists this season as the Devils won 54 games and finished sixth in the Eastern Conference after missing the playoffs in 2011.
“I think he came in this year and he felt comfortable and open-minded that he was willing to do whatever we asked him to do to help,” DeBoer said. “He just wanted to win — he wanted to play in the playoffs and have success in the playoffs. That was his only request, and he was open to whatever he needed to do if he was going to get that.”
Since the playoffs started, Kovalchuk has been even better, despite battling a back injury that caused him to miss a game against Florida, and his impact thus far in the postseason can’t be overstated. With 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists), Kovalchuk is the league’s top point-producer. The Devils are 6-1 when he scores a goal, including a 4-0 mark when he has both a goal and an assist.
"He’s been a huge part of why we’ve been successful," said Devils center Travis Zajac. "I know it means a lot to him. He wants to compete hard. He wants to win, we knew that. When we first got him, we saw that, the type of teammate he was, the type of leader he was. It’s just peaking at the right time and putting everything together. Right now we have that chance."
Kovalchuk is already a Conn Smythe Trophy favorite, and if he can continue on his exceptional run, his contributions could be the difference between the Devils winning a fourth Stanley Cup and the Kings winning their first.
“There will be a lot of emotions (playing the Kings), but you don’t have to look for anything extra,” Kovalchuk said. “You just are going to go there focused and control your emotions and try to play your best.”
It’s easy to wonder how things might have turned out had Kovalchuk decided to head to L.A. two seasons ago, but the Devils and their star player aren’t concerned about what could have been. The past is in the past, and that’s where they’d prefer it stay.
“I don’t ever look backward or ever think about hypotheticals,” Lamoriello said. “If we thought about hypotheticals, we’d never be sitting where we are.”