by pcoffey on 01/19/14 at 04:44 PM ET
Well, it sure is good to know that Ilya Kovalchuk is happy back in Russia and that he thinks things have worked out for the New Jersey Devils as well.
Of course, Kovalchuk might want to actually have paid more than lip service to his former team before making that declaration.
Yeah, it has worked out just great for Kovalchuk. His "retirement" lasted about a nanosecond before he signed on in the Kontinental Hockey League and he will be wowing the home crowd in Sochi in a couple weeks. Yep, just ducky for Kovy.
“I’m really enjoying everything here,” Kovalchuk said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “It’s a great league. The game is different, but we are getting there. There are good players here for sure.”
As for his old team back in the swamps of Jersey, well, things aren't so honky-dory. Sure, the Devils are out from under the financial obligation that remained on Kovalchuk's 15-year deal, a tidy $77 million. But losing one of the game's top offensive players has been a crippling detriment to this season's team, and New Jersey still has to surrender a first round draft pick this June for the NHL-imposed penalty for circumventing the salary cap in order to give Kovalchuk the big deal in the first place.
There never has been any question about Kovalchuk's prolific talent. That's why the Devils traded for him in the first place when things were going sour in Atlanta way back when. In the 10 NHL seasons before retiring, Kovalchuk scored 388 goals and 765 points. Think the offensively challenged Devils could use a bit of that now? Yeah, damn straight they could.
To replace Kovalchuk, the Devils signed a slew of players -- Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, Damien Brunner -- to make up for the loss of Kovalchuk's socring punch. Jagr has kept up his end of the deal nicely, but he is no longer the player Kovalchuk is at age 41. Clowe has been injured for much of the season and has just recently returned. Ryder and Brunner have been good, but certainly not made up for the loss of Kovalchuk's presence.
As a result, the Devils are a middling team whose good goaltending and strong defense is too often wasted game after game as the team struggles to score.
Having Kovalchuk, and the departed Zach Parise before him, in the lineup certainly would have made a difference. But the Devils were not able to entice Parise to stay when he became an unrestricted free agent. And, if you take Kovalchuk at his word, Devils President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello, knew of Kovalchuk's desire to return to Russia prior to his retirement announcement.
“I talked to Lou for sure and it wasn’t just one day,” Kovalchuk told the AP. “I appreciate the way he handled the situation and I’m excited it worked out for both sides.”
"Worked out" is a subjective term to be sure. Once you put your eggs in a 15-year basket with Kovalchuk, turning on a dime is a little difficult to be sure, especially when there is little time to adjust. Still signing Kovalchuk to such a long contract represented a big change in how the devils did business, with the team placing more of an emphasis on catering to the desires of a veteran player than what had been business as usual in the past, which was to develop players in the system and then augment with veteran additions.
As a result, the Devils no longer have that "home grown" feel what with the roster open to numerous free-agent additions each summer. In other words, the Devils have become just like everyone else and as a result, they live in the middle of the pack, unable to gain any traction in the standings because the offense can't get them over the hump.
The loss of a 2014 first-round pick won't help matters, either. But truth be told, the Devils haven't drafted well in quite some time, and that has been just as detrimental to the state of the team now and in the near future.
That's something Kovalchuk should know. After all, he told the AP he still checks in on his former teammates, so he should have figured things aren't as rosy as he would like everyone to believe.
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