There's plenty of wreckage left in the wake of the Atlanta Thrashers blockbuster trade which sent Ilya Kovlachuk to the New Jersey Devils.
From the on-and-off ice impact in New Jersey and Atlanta, as well as those who were hit by the aftershocks, we're here to break it down. We'll get the optimistic perspectives out of the way because, frankly, the words coming out of Atlanta are somewhat depressing.
Globe & Mail writer Eric Duhatschek offers his views about the trade in a thoughtful column as long as Tolstoy's "War and Peace ." He pegs New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello 's experience and guts as the reason the Devils now possess one of the world's top goal scorers.
Lamoriello essentially won the Kovalchuk sweepstakes for two basic reasons: One, after all these years as one of the top GMs in the game, he has the courage of his own convictions and knows when he can afford to make a big-time play; and two, some of his younger, more inexperienced colleagues essentially chickened out at the 11th hour, afraid to give up real-world prospects for a player that would likely join them only as a rental. On the flip side of the deal, Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports columnist, Jeff Schultz (not the NHL defenseman, excuse the linkage), who previously covered the Thrashers beat, is skeptical Atlanta's take in this deal is worth what they gave up .
It's another quantity-for-quality trade. That’s the way these things work. ... [Niclas] Bergfors? A nice young player, hardly a star (27 points in 54 games). [Johnny] Oduya? A solid puck-moving defenseman. [Patrice] Cormier? A train wreck. He elbowed a player in the Quebec juniors, sending himto the hospital, and has been suspended for the season. The No. 1 pick? Maybe this one works out. And stays. ...
It’s another ugly ending. Two years ago, it was [Marian] Hossa. He went to Pittsburgh, and the Thrashers celebrated the package they got back. But look at it now: Colby Armstrong (third-line winger, impending free agent), Erik Christensen (washed out), Angelo Esposito (flawed prospect) a No. 1 pick (Daultan Leveille, Michigan State). Maybe this deal turns out better. But history tells us otherwise. Another star was just shipped out of town. Unlike the Hossa situation, Thrashers GM Don Waddell had as many as eight teams pursuing Kovalchuk after it became public the winger was to be traded. Teams fell out of the mix quickly, and Waddell said at the end of the day there were only two offers that really stood out: New Jersey's and one from an un-named Western Conference team. Kings Insider Rich Hammond, while unable to confirm the team Waddell was referring to, certainly made it seem like Los Angeles was the other top bidder :
In the end, the Kings simply didn’t want to take players out of their locker room for a rental. Atlanta sniffed around Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds, at least one of whom would have had to have been the center of a trade package. Atlanta wanted NHL players. The Kings offered prospects. There wasn’t going to be a fit unless one side budged, and neither did. -----
The impact of simply hearing "New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk" is mindblowing, given the team's staunchly defensive mentality. It really is the most Earth-like representation of hell freezing over. Or as New York Times hockey blogger Stu Hackel puts it :
The Devils have never had a player like Kovalchuk. A world-class offensive talent, he doesn’t fit into their team identity. They’re a club composed of defense-first, solid, all-around — and affordable — players. Even New Jersey's franchise player, goaltender Martin Brodeur , laughed at the idea of the sniper joining the Devils when he heard rumors. Brodeur told the Newark Star-Ledger :
All my buddies were calling me. I said, 'I don't think so. Usually if [rumors are] out there we're not going to get him.' I definitely was surprised.I still didn't believe it until I saw it on the ticker. In the 28 games Kovalchuk faced New Jersey, he was not one to beat the Devils often. The winger's 15 goals and 23 points against New Jersey are the smallest career amount against Eastern Conference teams, Atlanta excluded. Still, Brodeur is pleased to have Kovalchuk playing with him rather than against him:
I was excited. Anytime you're adding a player of that caliber to your lineup I think we're definitely looking at the big picture and how it's going to effect our team. We're definitely delighted to have a guy like him. I'm excited. I think everyone is. He definitely brings another dimension to our hockey club both ways. Offensively and presence-wise also. -----
Kovalchuk's rejection of two lucrative offers has prompted some to ask about the winger's future. Does he just want money? Did he want to get out of Atlanta? Is he planning on returning to Russia? Only Kovalchuk knows, but that hasn't stopped pundits from speculating. (Update: Actually, maybe we do. former teammate Pascal Dupuis told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , "I knew he wanted to get out of there. Obviously he didn't sign a $101 million contract for 12 years.")
There's a lot to be said about the culture Kovalchuk is entering into and how it may impact his next contract. Just walking through the Prudential Center and the Devils' locker room is enough to convey how the players are steeped in what it takes to win championships, and the effort given by management and coaches to make it happen. That isn't something Atlanta, no matter how hard it tries, can mimic.
Kovalchuk's contract demands are rather hefty at the moment, but his focus during contract negotiations may change after he gets a taste of victory. At least that is what The Hockey News' Ryan Kennedy thinks :
[I]magine him on a team with Martin Brodeur in net and linemates like Zach Parise, Patrik Elias or Jamie Langenbrunner, not to mention a solid, workmanlike defense corps. It even gets me wondering if his hardball contract stipulations will melt somewhat.
Right now, Kovalchuk is technically a ‘rental’ for the Devs; as of now, he’s an unrestricted free agent come July 1. But with a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup not only this year, but at least next season as well (who knows how long Brodeur will play), maybe Kovalchuk signs a short-term deal in New Jersey, a la Marian Hossa in Detroit in 2008. As for Kovalchuk returning to Russia, it has been an option in the back of everyone's mind, especially Sportsnet's Mike Brophy, who touched upon the possibility a while back:
Could the lure of $20 million a season cause Ilya Kovalchuk to leave the NHL and return home to play in the KHL? At least one NHL general manager thinks it is possible.
"(KHL President Alexander) Medvedev is on a mission," said the GM, who requested anonymity. "He’s paying (Sergei) Fedorov $14 million this season so how much do you think he’d pay to get Kovalchuk? Twenty million a season? That’s what I’ve heard." ...
Considering players in the KHL do not pay taxes, nor do they pay escrow like they do in the NHL, if this is true then Kovalchuk stands to make a lot more playing in Russia than he could in North America. Not only that, there has been speculation NHL players could face another salary rollback during the next collective bargaining agreement talks. CBC's Elliott Friedman says Kovalchuks rejection was a statement about his view of the franchise :
I think what it comes down to is that Kovalchuk doesn’t want to sign with Atlanta long-term because he believes the franchise is unstable. Thrashers ownership has been in court five years and there are concerns the team will eventually move. I understand why Waddell would feel a bit betrayed, because Kovalchuk constantly told him he loved it there and created the impression he would sign.
Deep down, both Kovalchuk and Grossman have to know the player is not getting the max contract of 20 per cent of the salary cap from anybody. Most of the teams who can afford it and might be willing to do it don’t have the cap room. Plus, it’s borderline impossible to win with one guy taking that much of your space. Personally, I think it came down to the captain saying, "If I’m going to take the risk that the franchise moves, I need to be paid for it." The whole situation, whether it be Kovalchuk rejecting all Atlanta could offer or the Thrashers trading yet another franchise player, amounts ot a slap in the face for fans. You almost have to feel sorry for the hardcore puckheads in Atlanta, who have supported a team through mostly bad times, only to be hurt once again. Journal-Constitution fan blogger Bill Tiller turns those frustrations on Waddell and team management , in a post that paints Thrasherville as Mudville:
So, the Kovalchuk era in Thrasherville officially ended last night. However, the sun still came up this morning. Well, at least I’m assuming so…it’s so rainy and cloudy out there today I can’t say that I’ve actually been able to eye-ball confirm that rumor. ...
I am just sick and damn tired of see this Thrashers teams formed and shaped because Don Waddell found himself in a less-than-favorable circumstance. We have, for over a decade now, seen great players come and go...leaving D-Wad to have to clean up afterwards “the best he can”.
This organization needs a general manager that can direct the circumstances that make up his team…not simply “do the best he can” to make lemonade out of lemons. I don’t think Kovalchuk, or Hossa for that matter, rejected the offers Don Waddell made them when contract time came around. No, moreover I think it was more a rejection of what this team has become…and probably will be…under the management of Don Waddell and the Great Octocluster that is our current ownership.
It isn't something we normally do on Changing Lines , but we're closing out the blog by snagging a tradition from CBSSports.com's Scott Miller. It seems rather apropos...
Rock & Roll (Country?) Lyric of the Day
The devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal.
He was in a bind 'cos he was way behind: he was willin' to make a deal.
-- Charlie Daniels, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"