Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ilya Kovalchuk

I believe it was one of the brightest, most gifted poets of our time who gave us the immutable, profound maxim of "Mo' money, Mo' Problems".

Few in the NHL can come to grips with that concept more significantly than New Jersey Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk, a man so gifted as an offensive weapon that no one equaled his scoring prowess over his first seven seasons in the league, and a man whose contract was so controversial that it literally warranted a re-writing of the book on contacts in the League. For all of his goal-scoring gifts -- and with 380 goals so far in his 10-season career, those gifts remain potent -- there is an undeniable weight that sits on his shoulders considering that he has one of the biggest contracts in the history of the game.

At times that can make his rough public moments all the more brutal, as it did in New Jersey's last game, a 4-2 loss to Carolina Monday night. The Devils had already fallen behind 3-0 before coming alive in the third period and closing to within 3-2. With the team pressing for the tying score in the final minute after pulling its goalie, Kovalchuk wheeled with the puck near the left corner of the offensive zone and attempted a pass up to the blue line where center Adam Henrique was jumping on the ice following a line change. The pass missed Henrique and cleared the zone, a happenstance that isn't particularly rare in the game of hockey, but in this case Kovy's feed was so unfortunately aimed that it drifted all the way to the other end and into New Jersey's open net, sealing the game for the Hurricanes.

Those are the types of moments that cause New Jersey fans to quickly bring their palms to their foreheads, and it isn't the first time they've had to do it with Kovalchuk. The Russian sniper initially came to New Jersey as the big fish of the 2010 trade deadline, an impending free agent set up for one of the biggest paydays in NHL history, who had been lost in the obscurity the hockey hotbed that was Atlanta, Georgia. With the Atlanta Thrashers unable to come to a long-term deal with Kovy, he was shipped to New Jersey in a surprising gamble for the typically stingy Devils, who thought he might be the missing piece of the fungible roster's fourth Stanley Cup in 15 seasons. Once he arrived, Kovalchuk continued to have a solid season (he finished with a total of 41 goals and 44 assists in 76 games), but once in the postseason, the team went cold in a five-game first-round loss to the rival Flyers. That series featured Kovy, who was never used to playing with anyone else who could score, hot dogging so much on the rink that it's a shock Takeru Kobayashi didn't try to eat him.

The uninspiring performance left many Devils fans willing to simply let Kovalchuk walk at the end of the postseason -- myself included. After all, the price paid to Atlanta in the deal, Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier, a first-round pick and a swap of second-round picks, hadn't worked out for the Thrashers as well as they wanted. The expected best player in the deal for them, Bergfors, is now with his second franchise since the deal, and while Oduya is still with the team, the team itself had such a dysfunctional ownership that they shipped up to Winnipeg as the reconstituted Jets this past offseason.

So with not that much lost and the noble Kovy experiment over and not particularly successful, it wouldn't have been so rough to move on. Devils controlling partner Jeff Vanderbeek, however, instead saw a prize acquisition that could become his centerpiece for marketing the team in its recently built brand new home in downtown Newark, New Jersey. The price the Devils ended up paying in that move ended up being awfully dramatic, costing the team far more than just some money and forever painting the pressure that now faces the dynamic winger.

See for all of you non-puckheads, you may not realize that Kovalchuk's 15-year $100 million deal was the result of a long, arduous product that involved not simply breaking the standard operating procedure of New Jersey -- a franchise that had been loathe to give out reckless, potentially albatrossian contracts -- but it also came after an initial 17-year $102-million agreement was nixed by the NHL on the grounds that it deliberately circumvented the NHL's salary cap. This came because the League's CBA defined a salary cap hit as the average annual value of the contract, which is to say a cap hit on a two-year $20-million deal is $10 million. But that contract could very well pay out $19 million in the first season and $1 million in the second, and for a system that begged to be abused -- this can be seen in several contracts around the League such as Roberto Luongo's or Johan Franzen's -- many teams, well, abused it, often tacking as many as four or five years at the end of a contract at the League minimum when earlier seasons might have paid as much as $12 million. The idea essentially is that tacking on those minimum-value seasons artificially lowers the annual cap hit because the player is unspokenly expected to retire after the big-money seasons are finished, at which point the money and the cap hit comes off the books all together unless the player signed the deal after the age of 35. In some cases, like Luongo's and, yes, Kovalchuk's, this is the obvious intent as the contracts end after they turn 42.

For Kovy's deal to get pushed through, the Devils not only had to re-work the deal, but they were penalized with a $3-million fine and two draft picks. In addition, a wholesale addendum was made to the NHL's current CBA and previous contracts that clearly played the same dirty pool were grandfathered in.

After that long process, the pressure seemed to be heaped on Kovalchuk pretty significantly in New Jersey, but with many fans of the team concerned that his massive deal will inhibit the franchise's chances of also signing impending unrestricted free agent, team captain, and all around awesome dynamo Zach Parise long term, Kovy has been expected to justify the largest deal in team history -- and fast.

So with all of those expectations, the two-time 50-goal scorer, and perennial all-star who hadn't scored under 38 goals since his second season delivered, right?

Well, not exactly. Kovalchuk had an excruciatingly slow start in his first full season in New Jersey as the team stumbled to the bottom of the League standings and the worst start in team history, severely jeopardizing what had been the second-longest string of playoff appearances in the NHL. Kovy in particular struggled to find the net and integrate himself in to the team system, though that is not entirely his fault. Having played for an Atlanta team that was so awful it only made one postseason appearance in its 10-year history (in a league where more than 50% of the teams make the playoffs), Kovy wasn't used to having anyone talented around him, and expected to carry the play himself and go to extreme lengths to create scoring on his own. This in turn caused him to do the same kind of puck hogging in New Jersey simply because in the NHL it was all he had ever known, and considering his scoring statistics, what he had known seemed to work pretty well.

In New Jersey's defensive system this wasn't exactly the way it was supposed to work. For more than a decade the team had won three championships on a style built around staunch defense and counter attacking by pouncing on offensive giveaways by the other team. This is not the type of system in which a perennial 40-goal scorer flourishes, but it isn't one in which he can't exist either. Kovalchuk simply needed to adapt, but the toll this all took on the team -- which suffered a significant blow when Parise tore his meniscus in the first week of the season -- left the franchise floundering and rookie coach (and Devils legend) John MacLean without a job by Christmas.

These struggles were typified by one all-encompassing moment when Kovalchuk, needing to score in the final round of a shootout to prevent a New Jersey loss, moved into the offensive zone, hit a bad chunk of ice and saw the puck skitter away from his stick ending the game in just about the most pathetic way possible. In many ways, Kovalchuk, the man who was supposed to be the biggest free agent prize the team had ever known, had crystallized the lowest point in franchise history.

As a result, Kovalchuk became more a lightning rod for dissension than the messianic game-changer that was expected of him. In many ways this is not his fault, as the collapse of the team over the first half of last season was a widespread perfect storm that affected every corner of the team. What was remarkable however was that after MacLean was given his walking papers and general manager Lou Lamoreillo asked his old friend Jacques Lemaire to rescue his team, the Devils had what might have been the greatest second half for a team in NHL history. Lemaire had bemused when he took over the team that they simply looked like they had forgotten to play hockey, but by the time he was done with them the Devils had very nearly erased a deficit between them and the final playoff spot that was at its high 27 points.

The largest deficit overcome to make the postseason in NHL history is 12.

In fact, the Devils got so good so quickly that in a span of 14 games the deficit dropped from 27 points to 13 and Kovalchuk was right in the middle of it, scoring multiple game-winners in overtime over the furious -- though ultimately fruitless -- rally, including one just days after his disastrous flub in the shootout. Kovalchuk for his own part acquitted himself well, bulking up his numbers in the second half to finish with 31 goals and 29 assists, an above average total to be sure, albeit not a large enough one to justify his salary.

This season the outlook as been murkier and Kovalchuk's play has matched the uncertainty. In 30 games he has 11 goals and 16 assists, which would play out to roughly 31 goals and 44 assists. That's 75 points in 82 games, which isn't bad by any stretch. In fact, it's quite good, but it's not otherworldly either. Right now Kovalchuk trails such luminaries as Jason Pominville, Radim Vrbata and PA Parenteau on the NHL's scoring list. With the weight of his massive deal, one would expect Kovy to be higher than 52nd in the League in total offensive output.

Fortunately for Kovy, part of this has been obscured by the fact that the Devils, despite his errant pass on Monday night, are actually playing pretty well themselves lately. New Jersey has won seven of its last ten games, and currently sits in a tie for seventh in the Eastern Conference with at least a game in hand on its closest competitors. Teams that are in the conference's top eight at Christmas make the playoffs roughly 80 percent of the time in the League's current postseason format, so all of this bodes well for New Jersey, but it couldn't hurt to see Ilya Kovalchuk the mildly overpaid winger start to play like Ilya Kovalchuk the offensive superstar again. Otherwise the burden of his contract may continue to weigh on him -- and the Devils -- until it expires. And by the time that happens President Obama's fourth term will be over, Eli Manning's hall-of-fame career will be done and Justin Bieber will be in his 30s.

So yeah, it's a long time. But hey, it could be worse. The Devils could have a goalie who has averaged less than four wins over the last three seasons under contract for nine more years.

Kovalchuk certainly has it in him to start producing points in New Jersey like he did in Atlanta, but to keep chatter about underperforming his salary at bay, he probably needs to start soon. It's certainly a feat he's capable of, and who knows, he just might start doing so tonight against Buffalo, the team he embarrassed himself in front of a season ago.

If nothing else, he can always rely on being tougher than Rick DiPietro. In the meantime, Devils fans will just hope there's a little more to rely on from Kovy than that. For a player with his skills, the road to redemption isn't too far off.

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