Retrospective on Kovalchuk to Devils Trade

The Ilya Kovalchuk saga came to an end last week as the New Jersey Devils were ousted by the 7th seeded Philadelphia Flyers in the 1st round. The "Kovalchuk Question" (will he stay or will he go?) was one of the main story lines for the Thrashers.

To quickly recap that drama: The Thrashers asked Ilya's opinion on UFAs and he actively courted players who signed here. It appeared he was going to extend his contract after the team got off to a hot start. But Grossman asked for a cap max contract, and the Thrashers were unwilling to go that high, but offered several different attractive offers. Ultimately, he was traded for Bergfors, Oduya, Cormier and a 1st round pick. The Thrashers had essentially the same winning percentage after Kovalchuk left and hung around the playoff race until being eliminated in the final two weeks of the season. The Devils saw their win percentage decline with Kovalchuk and they won just a single game against the Flyers despite being heavy favorites.

So what to make of this Kovalchuk drama now that the season is over? Sometimes fans rush to establish a good-guy/bad-guy narrative in these sorts of situations. Personally I think it is a bit more complex than that.

Testing the free agency market. I know lots of fans were angry when Marian Hossa chose not to re-sign (and was therefore traded), and now Kovalchuk has also chosen not to re-sign (and therefore was traded). We tend to think that star players should be loyal to their town. But consider the fact that a player like Hossa or Kovalchuk is picked at age 18 by a hockey club in far away North America. The player has zero choice in the matter. They come over at a young age, they learn to speak a new language and live in a different culture and eat strange foods. They might be playing new systems with coaches that yell at them in strange tongues. They are asked to play hard for 82 NHL games, plus playoffs and pre-season matches. And in return they are paid handsomely, but they also give up a lot of control over their lives in the process. When they reach the age of unrestricted free agency, NHL players get their first major opportunity to decide where they will live and work--and I understand why a player might savor the chance to exercise that right.

The decision to wait before entering talks cost the Thrashers. If Kovalchuk had been traded with one year left on his contract in the summer of the 2009, the Thrashers would have gotten a more attractive return. Why didn't this happen? Waddell and Kovalchuk had an unusually close relationship. Waddell once told the season tickets that "If Ilya stays, I stay" but it didn't work out that way...for either of them. The harsh reality is that the NHL is a business--and at the end of the day the Waddell-Kovalchuk personal relationship didn't count for a whole lot. 

In my opinion the Thrashers should have made it clear that they needed an extension signed before NHL Camp opened in the fall to protect the interests of the franchise. If Grossman/Kovalchuk replied "we want more time to see how the team plays" then the Thrashers should have countered with an offer of a one-year extension to give him more time.

Ultimately the talks went nowhere, with Grossman insisting on a cap max deal and a guarantee that the franchise wouldn't move. It is my view that Grossman asked for a dollar amount he knew the Thrashers wouldn't accept and he asked for a no-move guarantee knowing the CBA doesn't allow such things. For example, under the CBA the Thrashers could not include a provision that would void Kovalchuk's contract in a case of franchise relocation--it simply isn't allowed.

Marian Hossa's agent made an outrageous request. Ilya Kovalchuk's agent made unmeetable requests...hmmm. Reading between the lines I suspect that Kovalchuk was only going to stay in Atlanta if they overpaid him and gave him a cap max deal. When agents make unreasonable demands it suggests that striking a deal isn't a high priority. Only Ilya and his agent know the true motive behind this contract demands.

Ultimately, Don Waddell didn't re-sign Kovalchuk and took the most attractive package he could find that late in the season. Many people are declaring the Thrashers the winners of this trade following the Devils early playoff exit--that's probably true assuming Kovalchuk doesn't re-sign in New Jersey. Some see it as a final plus sign in the Don Waddell tenure as GM. I'm not sure about that last part, it is a case of success by accident as much as anything else. Consider the following:

  • What I can say is that Waddell was right not to pay Ilya Kovalchuk cap max money.
  • What I can say is that Don Waddell was wrong to even offer Kovalchuk $10 mil. per year--he's simply not worth that much money in my view.
  • What I can say is that Waddell likely got the best deal possible for Kovalchuk.
  • What I can say is that Waddell would have gotten a BETTER deal if he had taken a firm stance during the summer.

What next for Ilya Kovalchuk? Will any NHL team offer him a cap max deal? Probably not. Did the trade hurt his UFA value? I suspect so. The Thrashers were no worse without him and the Devils were worse with him. He played with energy and enthusiasm in the playoffs and led his team in points--but one of his goals was a meaningless empty netter and several of his assists were secondary assists. Not exactly the game breaking performance Devils fans were looking for. In point of fact, the Devils season only lasted about 10 days longer than the Thrashers season did.

At the end of the day, Kovalchuk remains a brilliant but flawed player who racks up lots of points with huge minutes on the Power Play, but still lacks an understanding of defensive zone play. If I could pick any NHL player to build a team around, he wouldn't even rank in my top 20 players--he's talented, but not a cornerstone player...and certainly not a good value at $10 million per year.

Other people are taking shots at the Devils GM for making this big trade and dealing valuable players, picks and prospects. In hindsight, it is easy to point out that the gambit fell flat, but I admire him for making a move that he thought might land his franchise a Stanley Cup. If Ilya Kovalchuk is going to win a Stanley Cup, it would be precisely in a situation like the Devils--a strong defensive team where he is not the centerpiece player. It worked out well for Alexander Mogilny when he put on a Devils uniform some years back.

(EDIT: To get a Devils perspective on this check out ILWT feelings on Kovalchuk after an early playoff exit.

Conclusion

It will be interesting to observe the consequences of this big trade over the coming years. Already, Devils coach Jacques Lemaire has retired, Kovalchuk probably hits the UFA market, and the Thrashers will either use or trade that late 1st round pick this summer.

So really, I don't see a clear cut "bad guy" in the whole situation. Don Waddell should have been less trusting and more firm in the summer of 2009. Ilya Kovalchuk should have been more honest and forthright about his cap max demands as well.

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