Kovalchuk dispels myths with team-first attitude, dominant play
On February 4, 2012 Ilya Kovalchuk led the New Jersey Devils to a crucial victory over their bitter division rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. For the sublimely gifted young man from Tver, Russia, it was not just a brilliant game, but perhaps a game which defined him as a player.
The Devils stormed out to a 6-0 lead after two periods behind Kovy’s strong play in both the offensive and defensive zones, as he tallied a pair of assists and a highlight-reel shorthanded goal. A six-time 40-goal scorer and twice a 50-goal man in this the tenth season of his NHL career, the hockey world has grown well-accustomed to these types of exploits on the scoresheet. In the third period, Kovalchuk made his presence felt in a less common way.
Getting dismantled on the scoresheet, the Flyers attempted to alter the tenor of the game on the ice with increased physical play. After a whistle, Philly instigator Zac Rinaldo slew-footed unsuspecting Devils’ captain Zach Parise, a dangerous play where a player’s legs are taken out from behind leaving them defenseless with their head usually the first body part to collide with the ice surface. (Important to note that, while not penalized on the ice, Rinaldo was later fined $2,500 by the NHL for the infraction.)
Kovalchuk immediately went after Rinaldo, defending his line-mate and team captain. After being separated in the ensuing ten-man scrum, Kovalchuk was challenged to a fight by the Flyers’ Brayden Schenn. Ilya took a page from the book of current NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, starting the fight by removing his helmet and encouraging Schenn to reciprocate the gesture. This would be the final element of the fight which could be described as even.
Kovalchuk proceded to fling the helpless Schenn around like a rag-doll, finally ending it with a right-handed haymaker which knocked a dazed Schenn to the ice.
At the outset of the 2009-10 season, Kovalchuk was pretty much the sole vestige of notable talent on a poor Atlanta Thrashers team, playing to few fans in a floundering hockey market, with a future in doubt. Desperate to keep their marquee talent in Atlanta, the Thrashers offered Kovy a reported $100 million over ten years. Never fully comfortable in the Atlanta market, not certain where the franchise would wind up in a few years (as it happened, now the re-born Winnipeg Jets), Kovalchuk declined the offer, determined to test out free agency.
The Atlanta media painted Kovalchuk’s motives as financial, despite the obvious fact that the offer he rejected was more lucrative than any he was likely to receive on the open market. As the 2010 trade deadline neared, Kovalchuk’s name was bandied about in trade rumor after trade rumor when it became clear that Atlanta was not willing to lose him for nothing. As the media microscope closed in on the Russian sniper, the scrutiny of his play intensified, often bordering on the hysterical. Branded in Atlanta as greedy, Kovalchuk’s name was now seen in columns and message-boards across the continent beside besmirching adjectives such as “lazy” and “selfish”.
Despite the media pounding, NHL general managers coveted him, with the Los Angeles Kings making an especially inspired charge to acquire him in a deadline deal. Seemingly out of nowhere, the New Jersey Devils were the team which ultimately pulled the trigger, sending Atlanta rugged two-way center prospect Patrice Cormier, former top-round pick Niclas Bergfors, solid two-way defenseman Johnny Oduya and a 2010 first and second-round draft selection (both of which the Thrashers sent to Chicago in exchange for all-star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien) for the Russian goal-scorer.
Following the season, the Devils scrambled to sign Kovalchuk, now an unrestricted free agent, to a long-term deal. After investing so much in acquiring the electrifying goal-scorer, they certainly did not want to lose him for nothing, and wound up holding off Kovy’s many other suitors (most notably Los Angeles) and inking him to an enormous 17-year, $102 million deal, one which would run out when he was 42 years old.
Shockingly, commissioner Gary Bettman made an unprecented decision to nullify the deal the very next day, claiming it circumvented the rules of the NHL salary cap, despite previously approving similar deals made with Roberto Luongo (12 years, $64 million, signed with Vancouver at age 30), Rick DiPietro (15 years, $67 million, signed with the Islanders at age 24), Henrik Zetterberg (12 years, $73 million, signed with Detroit at age 28) and Marion Hossa (12 years, $63 million, signed with Chicago at age 30). New Jersey was forced to forfeit a first and third-round draft pick, and in the media the blame was leveled squarely on the “greedy” Ilya Kovalchuk. In a short period of time, the Devils signed Kovalchuk again, this time for a remarkably similar 15-year, $100 million deal which was seen by the NHL as acceptable. Apparently, Kovalchuk would no longer be an effective player at age 42, not like Roberto Luongo and Marion Hossa, according to Mr. Bettman. Regardless, with such a huge contract signed at such a huge cost of players and picks to acquire and then retain Kovalchuk, the heat was truly on.
In the first half of the following season, the Devils tanked. Halfway through the season, they had the worst record in the entire NHL, and Kovalchuk was struggling along with his entire team. Due to his huge deal and the ensuing media spotlight, Kovy took the brunt of the blame from the Jersey fans, often getting booed in home games and vivisected on team message boards. Everything from his heart to his talent level were brought into question.
With a putrid record of 9-22-2, head coach John MacLean was fired from the Devils after 33 games, and Jacques Lemaire was brought in to right the ship. leading them to a 28-10-3 record over the final half of the season, scoring a respectable 17 goals and 31 points in the 33 games following the all-star break, including a league-high nine game-winning goals. Still, the Devils missed the post-season for the first time in a decade and a half, and their $100 million star took a great deal of the blame.
Under new head coach Peter DeBoer and buoyed by the stellar play of Kovalchuk, this year has been a different story for New Jersey. A recent hot streak with four straight wins has left the club in firm possession of a playoff spot, despite an injury-plagued season, an often-spotty blueline, and inconsistent goaltending. And it is time that Kovy’s play on the ice was used as evidence to debunk some of the myths which have been mud-slung in his direction over the past few seasons.
MYTH #1: Kovalchuk is a selfish player
A natural off-wing who has spent his entire career on the left side, Kovalchuk has played this entire season as a right wing so that team captain Zach Parise can stay at left wing, the position he is more accustomed to. Ilya has never once complained about this, anywhere.
MYTH #2: Kovalchuk is greedy
Kovalchuk was offered significantly more money to stay with Atlanta than he was by the Devils. He simply wanted the security of knowing where he would be in the future, and he correctly assumed that the Thrashers, currently the Winnipeg Jets, were a team destined to change locales.
MYTH #3: Kovalchuk does not play defense
Kovalchuk is third in the league in short-handed scoring, and has become a force on the penalty kill. While not exactly a Selke Trophy candidate, he has greatly improved his defensive play in the past two seasons. His sole caveat as a player is that his “riverboat gambler” style of play sometimes leads to turnovers at inopportune times, but he has become very adept at covering his point-man in the defensive zone.
MYTH #4: Kovalchuk’s contract will cost the Devils a chance to re-sign Zach Parise
Kovalchuk’s current salary cap-hit is just under $6.7 million per year. Parise’s is $6 million. If Parise is given a raise of, say, $1.5 million, it will still be below what the salary cap itself is expected to rise next season. The Devils financial situation due to ownership is the one facet, aside from Parise choosing to leave of his own accord, which could cost New Jersey the chance to re-sign their current captain, but blaming Kovalchuk for that is simply poor economics and myopic sports insight.
MYTH #5: Kovalchuk is not a leader
Watch the video of Kovalchuk going beserk standing up for his line-mate Parise and then try to believe that myth. How many two-time 50-goal scorers drop the gloves and pummel an opposing player in retaliation for a cheap shot on their captain?
Ilya Kovalchuk’s Wikipedia site was altered the day after his epic game versus the Philadelphia Flyers to include his exploits in it. That is how significant it was. That very same day, Kovalchuk responded with his third consecutive three-point effort in leading the Devils over divison rival Pittsburgh. Despite vastly improved defensive play, he currently stands sixth in the NHL in points-per-game. It is time to debunk some of the negative myths surrounding Ilya Kovalchuk and give this Devil his due.