There were a lot of rumors flying around regarding where Ilya Kovalchuk would land prior to the trade deadline, but very few of them involved the New Jersey Devils.
It was only Wednesday when they first popped up as a possible destination and, even then, it seemed unlikely Kovalchuk would be a fit under Jacques Lemaire’s defense-or-death system. One had to wonder why GM Lou Lamoriello would make such a move.
But there you have it. The never-ending story has finally ended and with one push of the ‘send’ button on the fax machine, the Devils have immediately vaulted themselves into – if not past – the East’s elite teams along with Washington and Pittsburgh. The Devils, second in the conference behind the Capitals, are 21st in the league in goals per game at 2.54, but first in goals-against at 2.24. Adding Kovalchuk’s .63 GPG to their lineup gives them credibility at both ends.
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Despite the Thrashers insistence they receive a bounty of players they can utilize this season to continue their playoff run, it would seem at first blush they failed and the Devils didn’t have to give up that much to bring Kovalchuk into the fold.
While Niclas Bergfors (13 goals, 27 points) and Johnny Oduya (22:11 TOI, plus-2 rating) are certainly serviceable players, neither will even partially make up for the loss of Kovalchuk’s offense. To wit, Bergfors has zero points in his past 13 games and Oduya has four points all season.
Anssi Salmela, a 25-year-old mobile defenseman who was originally signed as a free agent by Jersey in 2008 before being dealt to Atlanta for Niclas Havelid, will join Kovalchuk with the Devils. His output this season is one point higher than Oduya’s.
Bergfors, drafted 23rd overall by the Devils in 2005, is only 22 and, along with Patrice Cormier (whom the Devils should be happy to wash their hands of after all the drama this season) and the player the Thrashers get in the first round this season, will improve this team down the road. But the jury will be out for years as to whether these future pieces will equal what Kovalchuk brought and would have meant to the organization.
The old adage goes: "The team that gets the best player wins the deal." If that’s true, this one’s not even close.
A move certainly seemed imminent earlier Thursday when Thrashers GM Don Waddell released a statement saying:
"Our goal from the start of this negotiating process was to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a long-term contract. During the process, Kovy affirmed his desire to be a Thrasher for life. We’ve spent several months exploring scenarios…and offered many lucrative packages in an attempt to meet his financial objectives. Unfortunately, we’ve reached an impasse and at this point he has declined all of our proposals and we can’t reasonably go any higher."
The release went on to suggest the Thrashers had offered the 26-year-old Russian $101 million over 12 years and $70 million over seven years, either of which would have been the biggest contracts of their kind.
"If we went beyond these offers," continued the statement, "we would not be able to retain the young players on our roster when it came time to sign them, or invest in other top tier players needed to assemble a truly competitive team."
And in that sense Waddell’s completely right. As Ken Campbell aptly pointed out in late December, the Thrashers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t give in to Kovalchuk’s salary demands.
Had they kept him, giving him the max amount – $11.36 million per season – allowed under the CBA that he reportedly was looking for, it would have handcuffed them and their ability to sign free agents and their own prospects who would come up for new deals. Atlanta isn’t a team willing to spend to the cap and a contract that ate up 20 percent of $56.8 million would have been crippling.
By letting him go, they lose one of the league’s premier talents; a sniper who can find the net, regardless of his linemates, every time he’s on the ice. They also lose the main attraction for a fan base that wasn’t really interested in showing up even with Kovalchuk in the lineup.
In the end, Waddell did what he had to do, but his biggest failing comes from the fact he wasn’t able to recognize this last summer or before, when he could have received so much more for his prize possession.
At best you have to figure the way this played out will cost Waddell his job. At worst it will cost the city its team.
Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog appears Thursdays.
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