Devils At The Break: Ilya Kovalchuk Comes To Town

In the fourth installment of “Devils At The Break,” we’ll take a look at the trade for left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk. The trade, one of the most aggressive by general manager Lou Lamoriello in his tenure, hasn’t had immediate benefits. But the trade served its purpose – to spark the team and add a potentially dangerous weapon.

The Atlanta Thrashers desperately tried to keep their superstar winger in their uniform. Atlanta general manager Don Waddell didn’t want to trade the team’s captain, who scored 328 goals since being drafted in 2001. The Thrashers, an expansion team in 1999-2000, couldn’t find sustained success, only making one playoff appearance. Kovalchuk balked at a 12 year, $101 million dollar extension, and the race for Kovalchuk was on.

Ilya KovalchukOn February 4, the trade between the Devils and Thrashers was announced. The Thrashers agreed to trade Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela to the Devils in exchange for defenseman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round selection in this years draft. The teams also exchanged second-round picks in this year’s draft.

Kovalchuk’s offensive numbers immediately placed him as the Devils’ leading scorer. In 49 games with Atlanta, “Kovy” netted 31 goals and collected 27 assists. He also tallied 19 points on the powerplay, which gave coach Jaques Lemaire a weapon to run the point on the powerplay.

Kovy made his debut with the team the next night against the Maple Leafs. The winger didn’t score any goals, but he assisted on two goals that night. But the goals would be hard to come by. Kovalchuk didn’t score in his next three games. He didn’t even register a point. And the winger was pressing. He recorded eight shots against the Rangers on February 6, nine against the Flyers on February 8 and another five against the Flyers two days later. In the four games since the trade, Kovalchuk put 23 shots on net but couldn’t break through.

Kovalchuk finally scored his first goal as a Devil against the Predators February 12. He also recorded two assists and finished with three points, his highest offensive output for the team.  It seemed as if a weight was lifted from his shoulders. Devils fans even threw their hats on the ice to celebrate the occasion.

But the results of the trade haven’t been immediate. The Devils went 2-2-1 in their final six games before the break, and they continued their month-long slump. But what the trade brought the Devils was someone who can score goals and create his own chances. His offensive numbers are underwhelming thus far, with only one goal and four assists in the six games. But his offensive potential drew the team to him, and it’s that offensive potential we will see in the second half.

Looking back on the trade, I think the Devils clearly improved the team. They gave up Oduya, who took a step back after last season’s offensive performance. Bergfors showed a lot of promise for a rookie, but he constantly fell out of favor with Lemaire. The Devils saw this year how much talent they have in their system, and Cormier’s disciplinary issues raised a red flag in the organization. The team acquired a proven scorer, something they’ve sorely lacked, and they didn’t give up much to get him.

Kovy’s slow start wasn’t encouraging, but I believe he will heat up during the latter part of this season. In the two games before the break, Kovy began to show promise with Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner. The powerplay can only be better with Kovy on the point, and I expect to see it flushed out and better after break. While the immediate results haven’t been evident, I believe this trade will be seen as a success when looking back on this season.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, Associated Press

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