Near the end of 2009, the Devils began to struggle. The team turned in lackluster performances, and several key players began to slump. That continued in 2010, and general manager Lou Lamoriello saw a need to make a big move and shake up the clubhouse.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Ilya Kovalchuk turned down a reported 12 year, $101 million dollar contract extension to stay with the Thrashers. He was officially available for trade, and the Devils became a dark-horse candidate to land the talented left-winger.
It seemed to be the perfect storm. Then, on February 4, Lamoriello pulled off the biggest trade since Alexander Mogilny. The team acquired Kovalchuk for struggling defenseman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first round pick in this year’s draft. The teams also exchanged second round picks. Just like that, the Devils seemed to rocket up the predictions board, and analysts handed them the trophy in February. I even praised the deal, believing he would help them surpass the Caps and Pens. And, in the end, Kovalchuk became a solid deadline acquisition.
When Lamoriello completed the trade for Kovalchuk, he brought in what the team needed – a deadly scorer who could quarterback the powerplay. Zach Parise was clearly the offensive leader of this team. But Kovalchuk could fill the powerplay void. And Jacques Lemaire tried to fill that void immediately. Kovalchuk spent most of his 31 games playing one of the points with the man advantage, usually staying on the ice for the entire length of the advantage. But his presence didn’t vastly improve the powerplay. In 121 opportunities after the Kovalchuk trade, the team scored 20 goals, clicking at 16.53%. That percentage isn’t terrible, and the team also didn’t play up to expectations during that time. But the fact remains that Kovalchuk didn’t vastly improve the powerplay. He only collected 12 powerplay points through his 31 games in a Devils’ sweater. While he made the powerplay more dangerous, the team couldn’t capitalize on his scoring abilities.
Even though Kovalchuk couldn’t help on the powerplay, he did seem to mesh well with some of players on the team. By using Corsi statistics, we can measure the impact Kovalchuk had on his teammates. The guys over at In Lou We Trust completed this analysis for Kovalchuk, showing he meshed well with certain players. One of these forwards was Jamie Langenbrunner. The numbers show that Langenbrunner performed better with Kovalchuk on the ice. He also played well with Andy Greene. And he seemed to play better with Patrik Elias than Travis Zajac. Although the ZZ Pops line has been effective, these numbers seem to justify Lemaire’s decision to put together Kovalchuk, Elias and Langenbrunner during the playoffs.
While Kovalchuk struggled after the trade, the left-winger showed something many other Devils’ wingers couldn’t do – create his own opportunities. It always seemed that Kovalchuk could flash his offensive prowess by crossing up defenders and finding the open ice. While this sometimes led to turnovers, it made the defense concentrate on Kovalchuk, opening up the ice for his linemates. This style of play also seemed to work well with Elias. They had several nice plays throughout the season. It seemed to be a nice match, and one that could continue to grow if Kovalchuk re-signed.
Which brings me to the biggest question of last season: Would Kovalchuk be a rental, or could the Devils somehow find a way to sign him? Read after the jump to find out the answer to the question!
Kovalchuk caught a lot of flak from analysts and Devils’ fans for never reaching his offensive potential. He seemed to struggle with the transition, and he never really looked comfortable playing in Lemaire’s system. Kovalchuk became a solid back-checker, and he didn’t play terribly in his own zone. That play alone surprised several people. But he never seemed to have the right line combination. Elias played well with Kovalchuk, but he’s not a true center, and never has been. Langenbrunner played well, but he isn’t the ideal linemate for the left-winger. Thirty-one games wasn’t nearly enough to give Kovalchuk enough time to find suitable linemates and adjust to the system, especially since he came from being the number one player to a second – line player.
I believe many of Kovalchuk’s struggles came from the coaching staff’s inability to find a suitable line for the left-winger. They continually changed his lines around, never giving him enough time to find the chemistry with a steady group. I know a big trade means adjustments on the fly, but the coaching staff had an entire two weeks to try and discover some working line combinations. Instead, Lemaire continued to tamper with the lines, and it never let Kovalchuk feel comfortable. Despite this, he still put up 27 points, averaging nearly a point per game.
Kovalchuk’s offensive skills can’t be questioned. In his 31 games as a Devil, he showed flashes of the exceptional scorer the team acquired. But, in the end, he became just a solid pickup. Without a consistent line, he could never get comfortable. It always seemed like Kovalchuk straddled the line between consistent and inconsistent while with the Devils this season. I believe that, with a full year, the team could find a way to exploit his skills and use him to his fullest potential. But in 31 games, the team only saw the good, and not great, Ilya Kovalchuk.
Photo Credits: Bill Kostroun/AP Photo and Bruce Bennett/Getty Images