Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ilya Kovalchuk - A New Jersey Devil - Reflections on a VERY Busy Off-Season

On Saturday, September 4th, 2010 it finally became official after months of speculation and uncertainty: Ilya Kovalchuk is a New Jersey Devil - for life. For a long-time Devils fan like myself, the news was very exciting and meant the end of a summer of whirlwind rumors and rampant speculation.

Most of those who will see this post are at least vaguely familiar with the proceedings leading up to Saturday morning's announcement - but a quick recap is in order, as having all of the facts on the table is vital when hoping to provide objective analysis of a complicated issue:

First of all, let's get the numbers out of the way. Kovalchuk was drafted first overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2001 Entry Draft, and since that time he has been one of the most dominant players in the NHL. In 621 games with Atlanta and New Jersey, he has scored 338 goals and added 304 assists to total 642 points. Arguably the most explosive offensive threat in the game since his arrival on the scene, Kovalchuk has also led Russia to Gold at the World Hockey Championships twice. Despite his skill, "Kovy" has been a part of just one NHL playoff win, and is often criticized for a lack of defensive awareness - his critics quickly underline his career +/- -75 rating.

The Devils acquired the star left-winger from the Atlanta Thrashrs on February 4th, 2010 after it became public knowledge that Kovalchuk would not re-sign with Atlanta. Many sources reported that Thrashers GM Don Waddell had offered his franchise player a ten year, $100MM contract, which was rejected by the played. Trade winds intensified when Kovalchuk seemed to imply in several interviews that he would be moving on. The internet abuzz, hockey fans league-wide wondered who would win the sweepstakes to land Kovalchuk. At about 8 PM, the phone calls, pings and text messages began - It was official - seemingly out of nowhere, the Devils had jumped in and lured Kovalchuk to Newark in exchange for a package including Niklas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft pick (2010). The trade was a bold statement by team management at the time - the Devils had been struggling to hold leads, and the team as a whole seemed to lack direction, lethargic in both the offensive and defensive zones. To many fans and critics alike, the Kovalchuk trade represented a short-term solution to larger issues with the club.

The next day, Kovalchuk suited up as a Devil for the first time, as the Devils took on Brian Burke's Maple Leafs. The game turned out to be one of the most exiting of the season (in several seasons, in fact!) - Kovalchuk had two assists as the Devils rallied to score three goals in the final three minutes, defeating the Leafs 4-3. A link to the final 3 minutes or so of the game can be found below - it really is worth watching:

Devils come back from 3-1 down to defeat Leafs

One great game in the books, and many fans began to look towards the future - maybe Kovalchuk was fitting in. Maybe the Devils would do well in the final games of the 09/10 season... but popular perception was that that would be it - he'd be off to play for the highest bidder after taking the highest paying deal available to him via free-agency - he'd probably check out his options in Russia, as well. No reason for Devils fans to get excited.

While there was no reason to get excited about the Devils playoff run this season, which was nothing but a disastrous five game loss at the hands of the eventual Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers (Kovalchuk had six points in the short series, leading the team), Devils management assured fans that drastic changes were coming - there was said to be light at the end of the tunnel. The Devils first announced the buyouts of Jay Pandolfo and Andrew Peters, which freed up precious salary cap space. Shortly thereafter, Jason Arnott was re-acquired - in the final year of a contract, he will earn $4.5MM during the '10/11 season. Pause for a moment on Arnott to revisit a great moment in Devils history:

Arnott scores Stanley Cup winning goal in 2000

Arnott was still very effective in Nashville last season, scoring 46 points in 63 games, and brings size and intensity to a lineup desperate for role-players.

On July 1st, the NHL's Free-Agent Frenzy would see Paul Martin, the Devils #1 defenseman who missed most of 09/10 with an arm injury, leave New Jersey for division rival Pittsburgh. Within minutes, the Devils announced the signing of stalwart defender Anton Volchenkov to a six-year contract. Volchenkov is a shot blocking specialist and deals punishing body checks in droves. While he does not possess Martin's offensive tact, Volchenkov is among the most positionally sound defensemen in the game. It is no secret that since Hall of Famer Scott Stevens retired in 2004, the Devils have lacked grit on their blue line - take a few minutes to check out the hit reels of both Stevens and Volchenkov and you will quickly see why Devils Nation is ecstatic with this acquisition:

Scott Stevens - Hardest Hitter Ever

Anton Volchenkov - The A-Train

It is going to be important for the Devils coaching staff to work with Volchenkov in an attempt to limit his recklessness when going for big hits - fittingly, Scott Stevens is charged with this responsibility, and what better mentor could a young defenseman have?

The Devils continued the retrofit by adding Henrik Tallinder, who brings a very strong and sound defensive game and 468 games of experience to New Jersey. Tallinder is expected to take young Devils defensemen under his wing, much as he did with Buffalo's Tyler Myers, who went on to win the 2009/10 Calder Trophy. Tallinder signed a four year contract paying him $13.5MM.

July first also saw the Devils fill the role of backup goaltender, swiping Johan Hedberg from Atlanta. Hedberg had been brilliant at times with the Thrashers, and, as is speculated every off-season, it is wondered whether he will take some of the workload off of Martin Brodeur's shoulders. Hedberg's contract is for one season, and pays him $1.5MM, plus incentives.

Many Devils fans believed that Lou Lamoriello had made his moves - adding a veteran center, two very talented defensemen and a reliable backup goaltender. The Devils were done, having spent tens of millions of dollars and using most of their salary cap space for the coming season. Then the Kovalchuk speculation began: Why would the devils give up so much for Kovalchuk and seem nonchalant about re-signing him? Was Kovalchuk even willing to sign in New Jersey long-term? The Los Angeles Kings were reportedly courting Kovalchuk and seemed to be on the verge of signing him, going as far as flying him to California to have him meet with team representatives and players. Optimistic Devils fans touted the fact that Volchenkov, Hedberg and Kovalchuk all shared the same player agent - Jay Grossman. Kovalchuk had also played with both Hedberg and Volchenkov in the past... was there hope for the Devils after all?

The rumor mill this off-season was dominated by Twitter, which brought fans league-wide into the minds of sports writers, agents and players - instantly! It was quite astonishing to follow the drama in real-time. When a beat writer from Los Angeles began to "tweet" that the Kings were desperate to sign Kovalchuk and would offer him a big-dollar contract, a black cloud would settle over the Devils fan base. When a source with knowledge of the Devils intentions (most commonly Tom Gulitti via his blog) responded with assurance that the Devils were also in the race, the cloud lifted and the sun shone until the next statement from Los Angeles. Although they appeared "close" to signing Kovalchuk for weeks, Kings GM Dean Lombardi and his staff never pulled the trigger, and for whatever reason, all sources pointed to Kovalchuk returning to the Devils. Bitter or misinformed analysts would exclaim that Kovalchuk had priced himself out of the North American market, and had no other option aside from joining a KHL team. The KHL itself was very open to signing Kovalchuk, and reported offers were in the $13MM per season range, tax free. I remember seeing an interview early last season in which Kovalchuk claimed that he aims to be the best Russian player of all-time (I'm looking for a link and will amend this post when I find it), and I was steadfast in my belief that he couldn't accomplish that unless he was playing in the NHL, the best league in the world.

The "best" players are often the highest paid, and deservedly so, as they are the ones bringing fans to the rink. Kovalchuk had a financial goal in mind when negotiating his new contract, which was to earn one hundred million dollars between now and the end of his career. An extraordinary sum, no doubt, but his ability to generate revenue instantly and in the long run made him a once in a lifetime option for a team willing to spend. While I don't have all of the insider information, I am led to believe that the Kings were unwilling to take the "big gamble", balking at the $100MM figure. The Devils franchise finds itself at a crossroads on all fronts - Legend Martin Brodeur is not getting any younger (though his 45 wins and 9 shutouts in 2009/10 suggest that there is still some gas left in the tank), and the core of the team is very youthful- Zach Parise has emerged as one of the top forwards in the NHL, and Travis Zajac has improved exponentially each season since his career began. The young(ish) core of the club coupled with the fact that the Devils are entering just their fourth season of play in the new Prudential Centre seemed to play to the Devils advantage. What better way to fill seats in a new building than by bringing in a star player?

Kovalchuk signed a 17-year, 102 Million dollar deal (an annual $6MM salary cap hit) with the New Jersey Devils on July 19th, 2010. A press conference to announce the news was held almost immediately - this turned out to be a very important step taken by the organization - The Devils pulled out all the stops, hosting the who's who of sports media in the NJ/NYC area at a press conference, and organizing a professional photo shoot, which would produce hundreds of photos of Kovalchuk wearing a Devils Jersey outside of the Prudential Center, home of the Devils. Championship Plaza was abuzz, and online forums were glued to the proceedings. When Kovalchuk took his seat, he was greeted by the adoring eyes of several of his teammates: Goaltender Martin Brodeur was flanked by star forwards Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, Captain Jamie Langenbrunner (who took a red-eye flight across the country in order to attend) and enforcer Jean-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. The presser was was sure to represent a changing of the guard for the Devils organization. More impressive than the entourage, however, was Kovalchuk's oration throughout the press conference. The 27 year old sniper spoke candidly about his passion for the franchise and was thankful for the monetary commitment that the Devils were making. A few of his comments sent Devils faithful, many of whom watched the conference online, into a frenzy:

"I want to thanks Lou... and have signed with New Jersey for 17 years, the rest of my career. I am a Devil for life".

So that was that... for a few hours.

Just as many fans began to express their apparent elation over the signing with their wallets by visiting the the NHL store to order red #17 jerseys, the NHL announced that it had rejected the contract based on circumvention of the NHL salary cap. The distribution of the $102MM was lopsided, and even to the most passionate Devils fan, appeared out of whack. Kovalchuk earned just $550,000 in the final years of that original deal. The NHLPA, as expected filed a grievance on behalf of Kovalchuk and the dispute went to arbitration. On August 9th the NHL's rejection of the contract was upheld by arbitrator Richard Bloch, leaving the Devils and Kovalchuk back at square one. Once again a UFA, talk of Kovalchuk signing elsewhere was lukewarm or non-existent - the Devils press conference and the player's apparent desire to remain a Devil certainly having an impact. Two weeks after the initial rejection, the Devils submitted a revised contract to the NHL - though it was also front-loaded, it was very similar and in many cases better constructed than several existing contracts, which were also brought into question (Roberto Luongo's new extension with the Canucks was actually put into jeopardy as part of the process). The NHL and the PA reached an agreement to amend policies surrounding long-term contracts to prevent excessive front loading and so called "retirement deals" from being put forward in the future, and as a result, Kovy will wear red for the duration of his career.

In recent days, more information has surfaced on Kovalchuk's negotiations with the Los Angeles Kings, and his decision to be patient with the Devils instead of fleeing the coop. First of all, it has been suggested that Kovy may have been put off by the aggressive nature of Kings GM Dean Lombardi - who is rumored to have offered a 15 year $80MM deal. I don't think you can fault the Kings for asking a lot of questions, especially when considering such a huge investment! The Devils acquisition of Kovalchuk in February gave players and management several months to evaluate him personally and professionally, negating the need for a drawn-out "interview process" prior to contract negotiations. It has been confirmed by Kovalchuk's agent that the press conference held by the Devils, and the surprise attendance of several players, was a key in retaining him. Lou Lamoriello's veteran tact throughout is to be commended.

So what does it all mean?

On the ice, the Devils become arguably the deepest team in the NHL at left wing, but will have to shed some salary before the season begins. Ideally, the Devils would be able to find a suitor for Brian Rolston and his $5MM cap hit - effectively solving the problem in one shot. This makes sense from both the practical, on ice standpoint and the fiscal side of the coin as well - Rolston's point shot is essentially redundant with Kovalchuk a lock to quarterback the power play.

Many rumor mills around the league envision the Devils parting with #1 Center Travis Zajac, a 25 goal scorer last season and a +/- +22. Zajac is a key piece to the Devils youth movement, and shows extraordinary chemistry and camaraderie with franchise player Zach Parise. I have no concrete knowledge on this, but I am fairly certain that the Devils would consider a dozen options before Zajac's number came up. I am of the opinion that the Devils should consider packaging first round draft picks ('11, '12) with roster players in order to create the required cap room - They possess a deep crop of prospects at this point in time (led by Swedish sensations Matias Tedenby and Jacob Josefsson), and with any luck, they will advance deep into the playoffs next season, moving their potential first-rounder to the back-end of the draft table. It is certain that mid-round picks would come back in the deals, which would allow Devils scouts to replenish the farm system.

I have watched the Devils play a passive, defense-first game for over a decade, and the arrival of a player of Kovalchuk's magnitude up front should spell the end of that trend. Rookie head coach John MacLean was the Devils all-time leading scorer until his total was passed by Patrik Elias on St. Patrick's Day, 2009 - yes, the very same day that Martin Brodeur posted his 552nd career victory. MacLean loved to score goals, and he is the perfect mentor for a young group of snipers. Defensive awareness has always been expected from Devils forwards, and Kovalchuk took his first step towards being a dynamic two-way player last season, posting a +/- +9 rating with New Jersey.

Puck drop is a month away, and the hockey world will soon have its answer with regards to the value of the Kovalchuk signing. This Devils fan believes that GM Lou Lamoriello managed to address his roster's every need - the arrival of two dynamic defensemen, a big, experienced second-line center, an upgrade in backup goaltending and one of the best forwards in the game will make the Devils a pre-season favourite to win it all... but will they deliver?

Time will tell.