Friday, February 05, 2010

Kovalchuk to have a Devil of a time

The Ilya Kovalchuk Sweepstakes are over. At least until July 1.

The Atlanta Thrashers traded the (former) face of the franchise to the New Jersey Devils along with promising young defenceman Anssi Salmela and Atlanta’s second round pick in 2010 in exchange for super sophomore Niclas Bergfors, problem but talented prospect Patrice Cormier, defenceman Johnny Oduya and New Jersey’s 2010 first and second round picks. It’s a huge win for the Devils, who lose an expendable roster player (Oduya) and headache-inducing (no pun intended) Cormier for arguably the NHL’s second-best pure goal scorer, plus a promising prospect just in case Kovalchuk doesn’t re-sign in New Jersey. The deal appears to be just for a rental for now, but the Devils do have $15 million in cap space for next year to work with (and with all their key players, except Paul Martin, signed through 2010) so Kovalchuk could remain a Devil through the summer.

My first reaction when I heard this story was one of shock. The Devils were always thought to be peripheral players in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes, with teams like the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers and Calgary Flames thought to be stronger players; plus who really believed that Kovalchuk is a Devil-type player? However, as Yahoo!’s Greg Wyshynski pointed out, Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello knows his time for a Cup is running out, so acquiring Kovalchuk allows him to get to the Cup sooner.

If it’ll actually help is the question. The deal gives the Devils two great scoring lines, with Kovalchuk joining the likes of Jamie Langenbrunner, Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston, but doesn’t really address the team’s need for a top-rated defenceman. The success of the ‘90s Devils came from having a capable core of puck-moving defencemen (see Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski) and premier shutdown defencemen (Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko), and none of the current Devils’ blueline counts as any of that. Plus, with Paul Martin out, the Devils are trading their best puck moving defenceman and their most mobile. Even with Martin in, New Jersey’s blueline is still nothing more than “competent” at best, a workmanlike group that can get you through most games but not something you can count on every night. This couldn’t have been more evident than against the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs last season, as the Hurricanes scored at will (12 goals surrendered in the final four games of the series, including eight in Games 6 and 7) and Eric Staal toyed with the Devils defence in the closing moments of Game 7 when the defences should have been at their sharpest. Scoring, believe it or not, could also become a problem- without a bona fide puck mover, the Devils’ forwards will have to do it on their own and while they’re capable, it’s easy to defend against them knowing you don’t really have to worry about the point shot (no Devils defenceman has more than Andy Greene’s paltry five goals). Considering the weakness of the East, this group may be good enough to get to the Cup Finals, but they’ll be in tough having to deal with the deep bluelines of the West, like Chicago’s or the San Jose Sharks (if San Jose actually makes it that far). This isn’t to say that New Jersey shouldn’t have acquired Kovalchuk- you can’t pass a player like him up- but the team didn’t need him and aren’t addressing what’s really holding them back with this trade.

For their part, the Thrashers and GM Don Waddell fared poorly with this trade. It was no secret that Kovalchuk was getting traded this season, and while Waddell must be happy he’s relieved himself of the stress of the Kovalchuk situation, there’s no question he could have done better than Johnny Oduya had he waited for the trade deadline. Perhaps he was worried he’d make the same mistake he did when he dealt Marian Hossa in 2008, when none of the players he acquired panned out, so in pulling off the deal early he escapes the pressures of the deadline, but he needs to realize those pressures work in his favour, not against him. Atlanta could have had a blue chip prospect (or several) and a player like Alexander Frolov, Scott Hartnell, Dennis Wideman, Brandon Dubinsky or Marc Staal in his lineup than what they have now- a serviceable but replaceable defenceman (Oduya), a former blue-chip prospect who’s slumping badly in his second year (Bergfors) and a blue-chip prospect who’s future is up in the air thanks to his own stupidity (Cormier). Hopefully for Waddell these players work out better for him than the players he acquired for Hossa, but this deal has the potential to become the most lopsided in NHL history- and that’s no overstatement.

In short, there’s no doubt this trade makes the Devils a better team but not a championship team, unless Lamoriello is working on a deal for Tomas Kaberle or another blue-chip defenceman. As for Atlanta, the return they received is small for a player like Kovalchuk, even if he was a pending unrestricted free agent, with plenty of better players available for the Thrashers now and certainly at the deadline. Like the Dion Phaneuf trade, this is a landmark deal for both Lamoriello and Waddell, but the stakes are higher for Waddell. For a franchise that only has one playoff year (2007) and no playoff wins, Waddell will need his returns to produce soon because the time for waiting in Atlanta is over; and if Thrasher fans have to wait any longer, they’ll leave Waddell waiting all the way out the door.



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