As an NHL general manager, if you are dipping into the unrestricted free-agent market of forwards, you basically have just one question to ask yourself: “Do I want a superstar…or do I want a player with character?” The New Jersey Devils just inked Ilya Kovalchuk for US$102M over seventeen years. Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello had to ask himself this question before he signed Kovalchuk. Obviously, Lou decided he wanted a superstar. Because, when you’re scooping into the character bucket of centres, right wingers and left wingers, you are not going to come up with a Kovalchuk. Sadly, in today’s NHL, the terms ‘superstar’ and ‘character’ have become mutually exclusive. And that sucks.
On February 4, 2010, Lamoriello acquired Kovalchuk from the Thrashers, after the potential UFA could not come to an agreement with Atlanta on a contract extension. In 27 games with the Devils this season, the 27-year old Kovalchuk averaged precisely a point-per-game. He can play the game…but he’s not ever going to help the Devils achieve anything great. Did Lou Lamoriello watch New Jersey’s first-round series against Philly?
When Kovalchuk was drafted first overall in 2001 by Atlanta, he and Jason Spezza (who went no. 2 to Ottawa) were easily the most talented players in the draft. But, a decade ago, most NHL teams drafted more on talent than they did on character. With Kovalchuk, Atlanta paid a price as they watched him coast merrily through eight-and-a-half long seasons. Oh, he won a Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy. He’s played in the NHL All-Star Game three times. He was a runner-up in Calder Trophy voting. But, where it counts, Kovalchuk came up empty. Over and over and over.
In those eight seasons in Georgia, Kovalchuk thrust his Thrashers into exactly one Stanley Cup Playoff series. Against the Rangers, Kovy managed to rack up one goal and one assist in a four-game sweep by the blueshirts. Thanks for everything, Kovy. Why should he care? He had his bucks and two World Championship gold medals with Russia (the true motivator for Europeans).
When Devils’ netminder Martin Brodeur – in Toronto today for a Mike Weir charity golf event at St. George’s Golf Club – heard about Kovalchuk’s signing with New Jersey, he said he was thrilled. Brodeur puts on a good face, but he knows damned well that there will be so little two-way play that he won’t be able to read the name on Kovy’s jersey even once this season.
Brodeur will be much happier knowing that GM Lou also signed free agents D Anton Volchenkov and D Henrik Tallinder. More than once, the Devils have been Stanley Cup champions with nothing but a roster of character guys – and a superstar in net.
Years ago, I asked former NHLer Nick Kypreos, “Who’s the most talented player you ever played with? I mean, flat out skilled.” Kyper thought for only a second, then said, “Kovalev.”
Kypreos played with Mark Messier, Dale Hunter, Chris Pronger, Dino Ciccarelli, Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille – and he chose Alexei Kovalev. A guy whose never led his team to anything – ever. Lots of skill. Not much of anything else. Plays when he wants to.
I’m not telling Lou Lamoriello how to run his club, because Kovalchuk puts butts in seats at Prudential Center. But Kovy’s never, ever going to do anything more than that in the NHL, comrade.