Lamoriello goes rental

New Jersey Devils trade for Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk

05.02.2010
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Ilya Kovalchuk showed his abilities in the 2009 IIHF World Championship and led Russia to the title. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

The talk had been there all year, but the floodgates were opened on Thursday, when the Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell issued a statement about the club’s negotiations with their biggest star, forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who at 27, will be a free agent on July 1.

“Our goal from the start of this negotiating process was to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a long-term contract. During the process, ‘Kovy’ affirmed his desire to be a Thrasher for life. We’ve spent several months exploring scenarios with ‘Kovy’ and his agent to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, and offered many lucrative packages in an attempt to meet his financial objectives. Unfortunately, we’ve reached an impasse and at this point he has declined all of our proposals and we can’t reasonably go any higher,” Waddell said.

End of negotiations. May the bidding begin.

Six hours later, Kovalchuk had gone from being a Thrasher to being a Devil as the Atlanta team sent him and Finnish defenceman Anssi Salmela to New Jersey for Swedish Olympian Johnny Oduya, Swedish forward Nicklas Bergfors, controversial prospect Patrice Cormier, and a first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

“We offered ‘Kovy’ several lucrative packages in an effort to meet his financial objectives. One offer that we extended to Ilya would have made him the highest paid NHL player on a per year average with $10 million per year for seven years. Another offer totaled $101 million over 12 years, and it, combined with the previous contractual commitments that were made to ‘Kovy’, would have earned him more money than any other NHL player in the history of the league,” Waddell explained in his letter to the fans, posted on the club’s website.

Pro players always said to being used to playing under a lot of pressure and stress, but few players ever have to play under the same kind of pressure, amidst contract negotiations that potentially make the player in question the best-paid hockey player ever, as Ilya Kovalchuk this season. That hasn’t fazed the Russian sniper, who’s scored more goals than anyone else in his time in the NHL, since the Thrashers made him the overall first pick in the draft in 2001.

He’s a proven goal scorer, an offensive genius who can truly create scoring chances out of thin air. And while he may be described as one-dimensional, the two last World Championships have shown the hockey world a Kovalchuk who has matured into a better team player and leader.

In 2008, he was demoted to paying the second fiddle in a Team Russia that had Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Sergei Fedorov up front, although Kovalchuk did play on the first powerplay with them. And who got the winner? “Kovy”.

In 2009, without Ovechkin, Semin, or Fedorov, Russia was Kovalchuk’s team. He was the only one averaging over 20 minutes of ice time on the team, and scored five goals, 14 points in nine games in the tournament. In the final against Canada, he logged over 30 minutes, and led Russia to its second consecutive title.

The Devils are not known for firewagon hockey, but every team loves a goal scorer, and Kovalchuk – still looking at being an unrestricted free agent after the season – is exactly that. As for Russia’s Olympic dreams, the trade was good, giving Ilya a breather, and some time to focus on giving his best for Mother Russia.

“We felt Kovalchuk was a player who could come and fill the need that we felt we had for an explosive scorer and someone who could add a different dimension to our power play with the type of shot, ” Lamoriello said.

Will Kovalchuk be in New Jersey in September when the camps open? Probably not. The Devils GM Lou Lamoriello is not one to drop a hundred million dollars just like that, and if that’s the number “Kovy” is looking for, he may have to look elsewhere. But for now, the Devils can be happy with the trade.

“Then it was just the case of trying to make it work somehow where we could not sacrifice tomorrow,” Lamoriello added.

And they didn’t.

Nicklas Bergfors started the season well, but he’s stopped at 13 goals after 54 games, nothing that can’t be replaced. Whether the Södertälje native will develop into a top-six forward in the NHL remains to be seen. However, he’s 23 in March, not a spring chicken anymore.

Johnny Oduya has been on a good trajectory for many years, developing year after year, becoming a solid NHL defenceman, even if this season has been a disappointment.

A new environment will jump start him, and with two years left in his contract, he’ll be a steady rock in the Thrashers defence. He will also most likely get a lot of ice time after the trade, which is good news for Team Sweden head coach Bengt-Åke Gustafsson as Oduya will be ready to take on the best in the world.

The first-round draft pick the Thrashers got is also nice, but with the Devils currently sixth in the league standings, it won’t be a high pick.

And if Ilya Kovalchuk gets another twenty goals this season, and more importantly, another ten as he quadruples his number of playoff games played – currently 4 – Lou Lamoriello’s move has been successful.

RISTO PAKARINEN

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