The summer of 2010 centered around unrestricted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russian superstar took his time deciding between the two lone serious bidders: Los Angeles and New Jersey. Kovalchuk signed a mega contract with New Jersey, and the rest is history.
Los Angeles Kings fans were disappointed when their team fell short in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes. At that point in time in 2010, after making their first playoff appearance in nine years, the Kings seemed to be on the verge of blossoming into an annual contender. Kovalchuk was viewed as that final piece that could help put a young Kings team over the top.
Instead, Kovalchuk agreed to an out-of-this-world 15-year, $100 million deal with the Devils. In the end, it worked out for both sides.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but the Kings were better off not signing Kovalchuk to a mega contract.
If GM Dean Lombardi had signed Kovalchuk to that kind of contract, they would definitely have a different look than they do now. They probably wouldn’t have had the cap space to acquire both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. They wouldn’t have even had the need to bring in pancake expert/2012 playoff overtime hero Dustin Penner at last year’s trade deadline!
Contractually, would the Kings have been able to sign Drew Doughty to his hefty eight-year extension? If so, would having Kovalchuk and Doughty (among others) signed to big cap hits long term affect the team’s ability to ink goaltender Jonathan Quick to an extension in the coming calendar year?
Again, this is hypothetical but they are scenarios that would have come into play with Kovalchuk in Los Angeles.
This postseason has further proved that the Kings didn’t need Kovalchuk.
In just 14 games the Kings breezed through the top three seeds in the Western Conference to advance to the Stanley Cup final and become the second No. 8 seed to ever make it this far. Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown have done the heavy lifting offensively, while Quick and Doughty have played some of their best hockey in these playoffs.
On the other side of the token, the Devils did need Kovalchuk’s services to get through the Eastern Conference en route to the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup Final.
More nights than not in these playoffs, No. 17 has been the best player on the ice. His 18 points are a league-high through three rounds. Though he doesn’t have a game-winning goal to his credit, Kovalchuk has scored one big goal after another. He leads all Devils forwards with an average ice time of 23:16.
In short, Kovy has been the difference maker that GM Lou Lamoriello thought he was receiving back at the trade deadline in 2010.
The Devils went outside of the box when they gave up a large package to Atlanta for Kovalchuk. It isn’t in Lamoriello’s DNA to swing a big deal at the deadline, but he did just that by trading Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick. (That trade looks really good for New Jersey now.)
Not everything went smoothly for Kovalchuk in his first year-plus with the second NHL organization he has ever known.
It was an adjustment for Kovalchuk to go from a non-contender in Atlanta to a playoff contender in New Jersey, a team that played with a lot of structure. Then came the postseason where Kovalchuk’s Devils, a No. 2 seed, lost in five games to Philadelphia. Then came the 2010-11 season – the first of his 15-year pact – where he tallied 31 goals and 60 points, his worst numbers since his rookie season in 2001-02 when he played 65 games.
Devils fans wondered if it was worth it to sign Kovalchuk until he was 60 years old. They started seeing the benefits this season.
Kovalchuk recorded a team-high 37 goals and 83 points in the regular season, helping the Devils return to the playoffs after a rare one-year hiatus. This came on the heels of the second half in 2010-11 where Kovy was actually pretty damn good. Including these playoffs, he has 143 points in 143 games since John MacLean was fired in the early going of last season.
It’s been a different Kovalchuk here in the playoffs, however. Coming in, his playoff record was a pathetic 1-8. Now he’s four wins from hoisting the Stanley Cup. As he put it, this is the first time in nine years he didn’t participate in the IIHF World Championships.
The biggest criticism of the Russian over his career was that he couldn’t play a lick of defense. Not only does Kovalchuk lead the NHL in playoff points, he has been all over the puck in all zones. He has evolved into a complete player right in front of our own eyes at the most important time of the year – something that was and wasn’t expected at the same time.
Without him, the Devils probably aren’t the 2012 Eastern Conference Champions. Hell, they probably don’t even get past Florida in the first round.
Kovalchuk’s first chance at playing in the Stanley Cup Final will ironically come against Los Angeles, the other team that so badly wanted him back in the 2010 offseason. This storyline aside, Kovalchuk will be a focal point of this highly unexpected series.
As it turned out, the Devils needed him to get to this point and the Kings didn’t. It worked out for both sides, and now they get to go head-to-head for Lord Stanley over the next two weeks.
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