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Ilya Kovalchuk: Devil, Yes; Savior, Maybe?

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The Atlanta Thrashers finally traded away their last superstar, sending Ilya Kovalchuk, along with defenseman Anssi Salmela, to the New Jersey Devils for three players and their first round pick in this year's draft.

Everyone's first reaction was shock at the Devils acquisition, since there had been no discussion of New Jersey in all of the rampant Kovalchuk trade rumors to date. My first reaction was a mix of bewilderment and anger — understandable, given my status as a lifetime Penguins fan.

However, now that I've given this trade a little thought, I truly believe it's a win for Atlanta. Here's why:

Atlanta Thrashers: Remember three seasons ago? A 23-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, and Vyacheslav Kozlov combined for 156 points, and another 23-year-old, goaltender Kari Lehtonen, played his first full season as a pro and was a serious contender to join the short list of goalies to win both the Calder and Vezina trophies in the same year.

The Thrashers won a franchise-record 43 games, racked up 97 points, and worked their way into the post-season against the Rangers. Those same three studs combined for a goal and three assists, and the Thrashers were outscored 17-5 in the course of a four-game sweep.

In all honesty, that was probably the peak. That was the best the Thrashers were going to get during Kovalchuk's tenure with the team — a borderline playoff team that spends the season hovering around .500.

So where are they now? Well, obviously they lost one of the league's best scorers, so making the playoffs could be challenging, but the bottom 2/3 of the Eastern Conference isn't particularly strong, so their scoring could dip a tad and still be okay.

They got Niclas Bergfors (22 years old) from the Devils, who was Jersey's #1 pick on '05 and has handled himself well, as he currently sits third in goals scored among rookies (13) and is tied with the great John Tavares for the lead in power play goals (8). If they re-sign Bergfors, then along with Evander Kane (age 18) and Zach Bogosian (age 19), the Thrashers would have an excellent young core to start retooling around after this season.

The scoring drop from Kovalchuk to Bergfors will also be offset by the defensive upgrade from Salmela to Johnny Oduya, and the team will also get an extra first round pick and the chance to figure out Patrice Cormier.

New Jersey Devils: First and foremost, let's remember this: heading into this trade, the Devils were in the same position the Penguins were in last season. Barring some cataclysmic offensive implosion, New Jersey was probably going to make the playoffs — and maybe even have some success — as they were constructed.

This means that Kovalchuk was not brought in to be the guy that got them to the playoffs, but rather to be the guy that helps them at least win the conference, if not the Stanley Cup.

So the Devils gave up two of their best young prospects and a first round draft pick to get Ilya. They also gave up their #4 defenseman (Oduya) in exchange for Salmela, a guy they just traded away this time last year.

In the short term, this improves the Devils' top two lines. However, it really only improves their scoring, and we don't know exactly how much — Kovalchuk isn't known for his defense, and Jacques Lemaire is known for suppressing good scorers (Exhibit A: Marian Gaborik already has his second highest career point total in 2/3 of a season away from Lemaire). Plus, if defenseman Paul Martin doesn't return to 100% from his injury, Salmela is a definite downgrade from Oduya.

So New Jersey's top scoring line got better, but their scoring depth didn't (which was just as much of an issue), and their defense might get a touch worse as well. Atlanta on the other hand gets to start over with a good young group and hopefully follow in the footsteps of recently retooled young teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, and the Islanders.

It's awfully early, but at the very least tonight's Devils-Leafs and Thrashers-Capitals games should be interesting to watch.

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  • Jordan Richardson

    since there had been no discussion of New Jersey in all of the rampant Kovalchuk trade rumors to date

    Actually, there was a fair bit of discussion about Kovy ending up in Jersey. It wasn’t too much of a surprise as the hours ticked away.

    The trade is basically a rental agreement for the Devils. Kovy’s an unproven post-season performer and is a big risk for Lamoriello, so it’s a strange fit as you pointed out. With Elias set to come back, it may be even harder to fit Kovalchuk in the lineup.

    I’m not so sure how much the Thrashers win on any level other than a philosophical one, as it finally lets Don Waddell off the hook in terms of chasing a big star.

    It’s kind of a weird deal, but I think it confirms the idea that Kovalchuk’s gonna bolt to the KHL at year’s end.

  • Geeves

    You’re right, there wasn’t NO talk of Jersey, but they were pretty far down the list of possibilities.

    I think Jersey gave up more to rent Kovy than Pittsburgh did to rent Hossa – which you can argue the fairness of depending on how you view their abilities against each others.

    This is different though. Pittsburgh needed a top line scoring winner, and rented one who was useful on both ends. Jersey got the scoring winger they needed, but he isnt great on D, AND they had to give up a top-four D to get him. For such a heavily defense-dependent t4eam, that is a MONSTROUS risk.

    As I said before, this should be viewed as a bust of a trade if they don’t at least win the conference, since thats what he was brought in to do – and given how the Caps are playing right now, I wouldnt be shocked if they don’t.