Kovalchuk and Devils Come to Atlanta

With the Thrashers battle for the playoff nearly over, their former star player comes to town just as Atlanta nears mathematical elimination. The visit of the Devils comes roughly two months after the big trade in which Kovalchuk and Salmela were exchanged for Bergfors, Oduya, Cormier and New Jersey's 1st round pick in 2010. Such a visit offers an irresistible opportunity to look back and take stock of what has happened since.

The Teams

Both teams have almost identical records since the big trade. The Thrashers 10-9-5 puts them on a 85 point pace, while the Devils 10-8-5 is an 89 point pace. The Thrashers 85 pace is nearly identical to their pre-trade rate of 83 points per 82 games with Kovalchuk. The Devils post-trade 89 pace is lower than than their pre-trade 107 season rate.

The Players

Bergfors has posted 17 points in 24 games with Atlanta (on pace for 58 points in full season). He has faced tough competition and he has a positive relative Corsi number (team plays in the opposition end more than their own).

Oduya's offense has been a pleasant surprise setting a pace for a 31 points over 82 games played. He and Hainsey have meshed and Oduya is a strong +9 since the deal. Oduya and Hainsey have faced tougher than average opponents and have acquitted themselves with with a positive relative Corsi number.

Kovalchuk has exactly a point per game pace for 82 points, which is a bit lower than his usual scoring rate. He is +7 with NJD which is much better than was the case with Atlanta. He has faced tougher than average opposition but has a negative Corsi relative to the quality of competition.

Salmela played just 9 games but gained a point in three of them putting him on pace for 27 over a full season. He was -2 for NJ.

Post-Trade

The Thrashers won as many points without Kovalchuk as they did with him. This surprised many outside observers who expected the team to be uncompetitive without him. The Thrashers distributed their ice time much more evenly and had scoring by committee rather than from just one or two lines. At Even Strength the team basically broke even (51 GF-53 GA).

Right after the trade the Thrashers climbed back into the playoff race with a scrapy run before the Olympic break. But after the Olympic break the PK entered a bad funk and they never figured out how to run the PP without Kovalchuk and Kozlov. Despite a string of home games in March, they were unable to cash in enough points to stay in the hunt. Often they were completely shut down offensively against strong defensive teams and PP wasn't able to pick up the slack. Other teams ahead of them stumbled and created a chance for Atlanta to sneak in with a low point total, but the Thrashers inability to adjust and win tight games really did them in.

I don't follow the Devils closely enough to have anything intelligent to say about their pre-trade versus post-trade patterns. But what does surprise me is that their initial reaction to the trade was to use Kovalchuk exactly the way Atlanta did. They put him on the left point and gave him loads of ice time. They appeared to be overly focused on getting him the puck at times. The best thing for Ilya Kovalchuk's career would be for him to mold his game to the NJ Devils--not the other way around.

Ilya Kovalchuk is a very talented hockey player and a decent person from what I can tell. The problem is that because he was so talented offensively, he was allowed to get all the way to the NHL without learning basic defensive positioning. If you watch Kovalchuk closely, you can see that he tries to help out in his own end at times. But the difference between clearing the puck out of your own end and letting the opposition hold it in the zone can turn on being just one stride out of position. The NHL is a very unforgiving place for those who are just beginning to learn defense. With his trade to New Jersey, Kovalchuk has an opportunity for some remedial defensive education and a chance to become a more complete--and more valuable player.

In the long run I think the Thrashers are better off not paying the cap max to any single NHL player--and certainly not to a player that only contributes on one side of the ice. The team needed to become younger (and cheaper). A young core that can mature together and create a contending window for the franchise. The team will also need to become much more defensively responsible to advance--and letting Kovalchuk go makes that possible. Whether ownership and the front office can assemble the correct players and coaches to take advantage of that window is a separate question.

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