The biggest fish in the NHL’s free agent pond this summer has finally been reeled in. Today it was announced that Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk has re-signed with the New Jersey devils. The announcement ended weeks of speculation regarding which team the Kovalchuk camp would eventually settle on. Several clubs, including the Los Angeles Kings and New York Islanders were reportedly in the hunt for Kovalchuk.
After spending the bulk of his career with the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk was shipped to the New Jersey Devils prior to last season’s trade deadline in a blockbuster deal. However, because Kovalchuk was in the final year of his contract and was set to become an unrestricted free agent the Devils were in essence getting a rental player for the stretch drive of the regular season and into the playoffs. By managing to sign the Russian sniper, Devil’s GM Lou Lamoriello can rest easier, as many hockey pundits had opined that the Devils sacrificed too much for Kovalchuk considering there was no guarantee they’d be able to lock him up for the long term.
Kovalchuk didn’t make a huge impact with the club during his brief tenure last season. At a glance his statistics look respectable (27 points in 27 regular season games, and six points in five playoff games). However, under the structured system of then coach Jacques Lemaire, Kovalchuk seemed to struggle to find his place, and was all but invisible on many nights – a criticism that he rarely heard during his time with the Thrashers.
The lack of a significant playoff run with the Devils is even more telling. Kovalchuk was brought in to turn a very good Devils team into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Bowing out in five games to the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers was not an outcome anyone would have been predicted. Many pointed fingers at Kovalchuk, who has only appeared in nine playoff games in his career, and has only been on the winning side once, claiming the talented winger’s solo game disrupted the team game that the Devils have been so successful implementing over the past 15 years or so.
It will be interesting to see if the Devils can manage to assimilate Kovalchuk into their team culture. If they can get him on the same page as the rest of his teammates then the club will most certainly reap rich rewards, and this signing will look like another stroke of genius from GM Lou Lamoriello. However, if Kovalchuk continues to play a me-first game he could ultimately become a cancer to the team, much like “coach-killer” Jaromir Jagr was during much of his career.
Whichever way the experiment goes, one thing is for certain: the Devils will be a far more entertaining team to watch than they’ve been at any time throughout their history to date.