The defensive-minded New Jersey Devils picked up one of the NHL’s marquee goal scorers in acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers in a blockbuster deal Thursday night.
In getting the 31-goal scorer from the Thrashers, the Devils shipped defenseman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, junior prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft pick this year to the Thrashers for Kovalchuk and former Devils defenseman Anssi Samlema. The teams also swapped second-round draft picks this year.
The deal was made just hours after Atlanta general manager Don Waddell said the franchise would aggressively explore all its options after Kovalchuk rejected a 12-year, $101 million extension. Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello jumped at the situation and made the deal, noting that while the Devils gave away a lot, they have the depth in the organization to overcome it. He also noted that the Devils’ recent scoring slump played a part.
“We felt Kovalchuk was a player who could come and fill the need that we felt we had for an explosive scorer and someone who could add a different dimension to our power play with the type of shot,” Lamoriello said. “Then it was just the case of trying to make it work some how where we could not sacrifice tomorrow.”
While it was not easy to trade a player as talented as Kovalchuk, Waddell said if the franchise meet Kovalchuk’s salary demands it would have jeopardized its ability to build a competitive team around him and to retain our other young players as they became eligible for new contracts in the seasons ahead.
“We’re struggling with our attendance as it is,” Waddell said. “The only way we’re going to brings fans back is by winning hockey games.”
Lamoriello said the Devils have not spoken to Kovalchuk about an extension. He will become a free agent after this season.
Lamoriello said Kovalchuk is expected to play Friday night when the Devils play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Since the Thrashers drafted Kovalchuk No. 1 overall in 2001, the Russian Olympian leads the NHL with 328 goals, but Atlanta has made just one playoff appearance and has never won a postseason game.
The 26-year-old Kovalchuk had 31 goals and 27 assists in 49 games this season for the Thrashers. He missed six games because of a broken bone in his foot.
“The power that he brings, he is a power forward, he has hockey sense and he knows how to make other people around him better,” Lamoriello said. “You can tell by the assists he gets. I am sure every one of you has seen him play. What he brings, he can do things a lot of people can’t do.”
Lamoriello doesn’t expect Kovalcuk will have a problem fitting into the Devils’ team system.
The 28-year-old Oduya has two goals and two assists in 40 games in what has been a disappointing season. He’s set to play for Sweden in Olympics.
Bergfors, a 22-year-old Swede, is fifth among NHL rookies with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists). He was drafted 23rd overall in 2005.
The 19-year-old Cormier had 11 goals and 20 assists in 31 games this season with Rimouski and Rouyn-Noranda of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before he was suspended for the rest of season because of a hit on an opposing player. He captained Canada in the 2010 World Junior Championship.
“I didn’t say we’re a better team, but if you watch what’s happened, we haven’t had great success on the ice,” Waddell said of the Thrashers after the trade. “It’s not Ilya’s fault. It’s the team’s fault, but we’re excited about the future and moving forward.”
Salmela, 25, had a goal and four assists in 29 games this season for Atlanta. The Finn was acquired by the Thrashers from the Devils in exchange for defenseman Niclas Havelid and forward Myles Stoesz on March 2, 2009