Ilya Kovalchuk is still a destructive thorn in the side of the New Jersey Devils franchise.
Kovalchuk perfectly executed a blueprint that would set the Devils back, costing them as much as possible.
First there was the notorious contract: 17 years for 102 million dollars. Yikes. That was rejected by the NHL because of salary cap restrictions. The much more reasonable 15 year – 100 million dollar contract was finalized in 2010. In 2012, the Devils lost in the Stanley Cup final to the L.A. Kings in six games. The next year, 3 years into his 15 year contract, Kovalchuk retired from the NHL for greener pastures in the KHL.
Ilya literally waited until the worst possible time, for the Devils, to announce his retirement.
The previous off season, 2012, Devils captain and superstar forward Zach Parise became one of the most coveted free agents available. So coveted Zach was able to choose where he wanted to play. The reason: Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello let him walk.
This was not a mistake. It was a conscious, all business decision, consistent with Lou’s style and history. Cap space limited the players the Devils could afford to keep. Parise in 2012 and David Clarkson in 2013, were casualties of the Devils salary cap, lost to free agency. And a big chunk of that cap, at that point in time, was being eaten up by none other than Ilya Kovalchuk. Lamoriello had to bear the brunt of letting Parise go. But he had a plan in place, and has a reputation of finding skilled diamonds in the rough to compliment his core players. It is plan A. Part of that plan relies on core players you have signed. Core players like Ilya Kovalchuk.
Letting Parise walk was all good and fine because, in Kovalchuk, you have a superstar sniper that can score goals. He can also carry the load and pick up valuable points in games that are decided in the all-important shootout, where Kovalchuk is an expert, special talent.
Good thing the Devils haven’t struggled in shootouts in 2014. 78 games into the season they are only 0-11. Pretty good. In fact, the Devils only have three goals in those thirty-nine shootout attempts. Whoopsey daisey!
Guess 11 points in an NHL playoff race don’t matter.
Oh wait. The Devils sit two points out of a playoff spot with four games to go.
These are short term obstacles for the Kovalchuk-less Devils. They don’t include the burdensome problems of the long-run.
Kovalchuck announced his retirement after the 2013 draft. After Lamoriello and the Devils made their decisions and plans for a future that included Kovalchuk.
At the time the Devils knew they would have a third round pick in 2013 taken away, as well as a first round pick in the 2014 draft taken away. Penalties incurred from the signing of Kovalchuk’s 17 year contract. With assumed firepower up front, they passed on talented prospects with the 9th overall pick and traded their 2013 first round pick to the Vancouver Canucks for goaltender Cory Schneider.
Kovalchuk waited until all was said and done, and then said he was done.
Common NHL wisdom would say it’s always a good move to lock up a young superstar player to a long term contract. Most of the time this is true, but you really have to know the player. Any player a team inks to that type of deal better buy in to what the team is trying to do, the attitude, and especially the team’s method of doing business.
And now there’s a compounding problem. We don’t have to worry about an Iron Curtain or a Russian Invasion. The NHL has to be mindful, if not worried about a Russian exodus.
More than ever before the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) is showering players with money and drawing talent away from the NHL. Especially young European players that want to play at a high level, earn top dollar, and stay close to home. The KHL makes it easy for young stars to become icons close to home and satisfy all their hockey dreams without having to travel across the pond.
The KHL has also implemented a strategy to lure current NHL players. Players that are on unsuccessful teams in the NHL, or can’t find contract terms that they prefer now have an alternative option. Players can choose to leave the NHL without fear of losing momentum in their careers, and at the same time be compensated handsomely. Some players, who feel ready for the elite top levels don’t want to linger in the AHL (American Hockey League), progressing while playing for NHL farm teams. Players can leave patient development, the feeling of being held back or passed over, or the snub of some NHL general manager and turn pro becoming European heroes while still making tons of cash-money.
With the acquisition of big names like Ilya Kovalchuk the KHL has bolstered its talent ranks and reputation. It was a great marketing pitch that happened to seriously injure the New Jersey Devils franchise: the Kovalchuk effect.
Kovalchuk has not only damaged the Devils in the short-term: affecting the decision to re-sign and keep Parise, but also the long-term with all the draft penalties and potentially changing the decisions of the 2013 draft, that involved trading the 9th overall pick.
Luckily for the Devils, they were able to appeal the NHL ruling that would have denied their first round draft pick in 2014 as part of a penalty for trying to circumvent the cap space with the 17 year contract offer Kovalchuk signed. The Devils will be awarded restitution with the 30th overall pick, the last pick of the first round, that can’t be traded or transferred.
Either way the loss of Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils and the NHL as a whole will be felt for years to come. Hopefully the NHL will not lose more of its prospects and stars to the great Red beyond.
Thanks for reading!