July 01, 2010
(Ed. Note: The following is written by a New Jersey Devils fan.)
By all accounts, the New Jersey Devils are one of the few teams in the running, or with the desire, to sign left wing Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) as the Russian star hits the open market as a free agent. From this opportunity springs a rather stark debate:
On the one side is every tenet of team-building, economic theory, sports marketing, and hockey philosophy that have been successful upheld by this franchise for the last 23 years; resulting in three Stanley Cups, four conference championships and a playoff appearance in 19 of the last 20 seasons.
On the other side is Ilya Kovalchuk.
Devils fans haven't been here before. It's as foreign a territory as being the team that won the hand of the prettiest girl at the dance back at the trade deadline ... only to see her pass out in the car on the way to the motel after prom, unfortunately.
Now there's a chance for a second date. There's never been a player with the offensive talents of Kovalchuk in a Devils sweater. You see it every time he's on the ice: The shot from any angle; the respect he's earned on the blue line of the power play; the effortless passes he makes that require a player to be thinking three plays ahead like Kovalchuk does.
A player like Zach Parise(notes) works his ass off for every tally; that Kovalchuk doesn't isn't an accusation of sloth, but rather one of god-given talent. Some vocalists need voice lessons and some are born Pavarotti. That's just how it is.
Kovalchuk finished with 41 goals between the Atlanta Thrashers and the Devils in 2009-10, the sixth consecutive season he posted 40 or more.
The Devils have acquired star players before, but never in their prime, as Kovalchuk is at 27. Peter Stastny was 33 when the Devils traded for him, as was Doug Gilmour. Bernie Nichols was 31 but in his 12th NHL season. Alex Mogilny was 30 but in the midst of an offensive decline.
What Kovalchuk tantalizingly offers this franchise is a reason for fans to pay regular-season ticket prices and be genuinely excited to see a spectacular offensive player on the home team for a change. Kovalchuk's role as a gate attraction has been maligned because he didn't flip the turnstiles in Atlanta. To that I'd say (a) the teams were frequently terrible and (b) there's more at play in New Jersey than simply a name for the marquee.
Eventually, Marty Brodeur will retire and Lou Lamoriello will hand over Kool-Aid to his successor. Perhaps, at that moment, the franchise's philosophy shifts to one that allows Kovalchuk or Parise or whomever they're playing with to win with the type of marketable offensive game the Devils have never sold to apathetic New Jerseyans.
Bringing in Kovalchuk, long-term, could be a signal that times are changing. Eventually.
Offensive hockey? Marketing stars? Paying whatever it is that Kovalchuk requires to remain in New Jersey long-term?
These are alien concepts to what has been known as "Devils hockey" for the last two decades.
Devils hockey would rebuild a blue line that has been crumbling like an old factory for the last several years. Devils hockey would point to the fact that Zach Parise is a left wing and Patrik Elias(notes) is a left wing (with a new center in Jason Arnott(notes)) and wonder if Kovalchuk brings redundancy in the lineup. Devils hockey doesn't give out the sorts of contracts that Kovalchuk is seeking.
So we're at the crossroads of illogical star-[expletive] and hockey logic. I can't remember a time when hockey logic didn't win out on a Lou Lamoriello team, so that makes me pessimistic about Kovalchuk returning. The years of seeing how Lamoriello has built a winner have conditioned me to be OK with this, because Kovalchuk may not be the right player for this franchise going forward, should Devils hockey extend beyond Brodeur's career.
As I write this, there are roughly 90 minutes before free agency starts. Like other fans, my mind's a-buzzin' about the present, the past and the future of the team I've chosen to follow. What happens in the next 24, 48 or 248 hours could determine whether they're champs or chumps, whether they have a superstar or, as Colin Campbell famously said, an "interchangeable flock of forwards," and what their salary cap space will look like through the next CBA negotiation.
It's the anticipation that kills us, yet it's the anticipation that fuels us.