Philadelphia, PA – It would be hard to blame the Devils if they had a case of buyer's remorse in the early part of Ilya Kovalchuk's tenure in New Jersey.
Presently, the Devils have to be extremely pleased at the return they're getting from the huge investment they made on the Russian sniper.
Kovalchuk has always had his critics. In his early NHL years with the Atlanta Thrashers, he was called one-dimensional, even if that single dimension made him a Rocket Richard winner and one of the best pure scorers in the league.
Although he may never score the way he used to in Atlanta, where he twice posted 52-goal seasons, Kovalchuk seems to have finally found the right balance to be a successful player in New Jersey.
The Devils also have benefited as a whole from Kovalchuk's maturation, and as a result, they appear poised to make a return to the postseason this spring.
As it turns out, Kovalchuk developed some pretty bad habits during his seven-plus seasons with the Thrashers. He scored at will in Atlanta, but never developed into a responsible player outside the offensive zone.
In New Jersey, where a dedication to team defense helped lead the franchise to three Stanley Cup titles in 1995, 2000 and '03, having a player who offered loads of scoring but no desire to help out in his own team's end was not an option.
So, Kovalchuk worked tirelessly at improving his all-around game and he finally seems to be getting results in that regard. More importantly, his dedication to the defensive side has not sapped Kovalchuk of his scoring prowess.
In fact, with a hat trick against the New York Islanders on Thursday, Kovy now has 29 goals and 67 points in 62 games this season, giving him his highest point total since he had 91 in 2008-09, his last full season in Atlanta.
It's unlikely Kovalchuk will win any Selke trophies in the near future, but he has become a good enough defensive forward to fit into New Jersey's system and the Devils are much better off because of the adjustments made to his game.
The turning point for the Devils and their star player seemed to have come in December of last season. After an awful start to the 2010-11 season for both the team and Kovalchuk, their play began to click again. First came Kovalchuk's offensive resurgence and eventually the Devils began playing better as a unit.
After starting last season with a horrific 10-29-3 record, the Devils ended the year on a furious 28-10-3 run that almost got them into the playoffs. Even though the Devils missed the postseason for the first time since 1995-96, the seeds were sown for this season and both Kovalchuk and New Jersey have been reaping the benefits.
The contrast between Kovy's early days in Jersey and his more recent output is staggering. He had 14 goals and 23 assists for 37 points in his first 51 regular-season games for the Devils, but in 119 contests since Kovalchuk has compiled 56 goals and 117 points. He also had a minus-26 rating in 2010-11 and although he's still not a plus-player, Kovy's minus-five rating this season shows he's dedicated to playing a more responsible game.
However, the 28-year-old has downplayed the idea that his game has improved vastly during his two-plus years as a Devil. Although he did admit after Thursday's hat trick that he is in a good place right now in regards to his comfort level.
"I didn't think I was looking that bad," Kovalchuk said. "But I came here to score goals and make plays for my team and to try to make my team win. Right now I feel very comfortable."
As the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, it's not like Kovalchuk didn't experience pressure in Atlanta, but the stakes certainly have been higher since he switched addresses in New Jersey.
The Devils originally acquired Kovalchuk as a rental player on Feb. 4, 2010 when they traded for the coveted winger. He had 12 goals and added 21 assists in 32 games between the regular season and playoffs that year and that was enough to convince the Devils they wanted to keep him on a long-term basis.
After he briefly tested the free agent market in the summer of 2010, the Devils and Kovalchuk eventually agreed on a 15-year, $100 million deal to keep the superstar in the Garden State through the 2025-26 season.
Of course, it wasn't that easy as the original 17-year, $102 million deal agreed upon by Jersey and Kovy was rejected by the NHL because it circumvented the league's salary cap. In the end, the Devils had to pay a $3 million fine to the NHL for the original contract and also lost a pair of draft picks, including a first-rounder.
The hubbub surrounding the contract controversy probably had an adverse affect on Kovy's play early last season and that's when the long-term deal looked like a bad decision on Jersey's end. Fans tend to panic when they can go to capgeek.com and see that their favorite team has signed an underachieving player through the 2025-26 season. Call it the Rick DiPietro effect.
Another reason Kovy's improved play is a good sign for the Devils, is that it's unclear if the club will be able to re-sign forward Zach Parise this summer. Parise is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and it's a tough call as to whether or not salary-cap constraints will allow the Devils to keep the talented winger for the long term.
Although they're both naturally left wingers, Kovalchuk and Parise have played on the same line quite a bit over the last few seasons and there is chemistry between the two. Perhaps, that will be reason enough for general manager Lou Lamoriello to shift some salaries around in order to make sure Parise remains in New Jersey.
No matter what happens regarding Parise's future, at least the Devils finally know they have a keeper in Kovalchuk.