Ilya Kovalchuck signed with the New Jersey Devils. A move that is a surprise to some, sensible to most, devastating to a small few. Following a three week speculation fest that vaguely resembled the NBA's recent "Decision" fiasco, his decision represents a great hope for the New Jersey franchise, and a disappointment, if not a set back for the Los Angeles Kings.As I write this, the NHL is locked in a semantics debate with New Jersey, rejecting the 17 year, $102 million deal. The collective bargaining agreement will be picked apart, the rest of the league will speculate that Kovy may still end up in L.A. or with the Islanders, and Devils faithful will hold there breath in the hopes that this mess can be resolved as quickly as possible. In the end, I believe no matter what transpires, he will remain in New Jersey.
In his decision to return to Jersey and not live out his career in Hollywood, he credited two main factors that sealed the controversial deal. Kovalchuck (10 G, 27P in 27 games ly) expressed a feeling of unfinished business after being ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the finals bound Philadelphia Flyers. Secondly, he spoke to appreciating the organizations' unified vision of being team players. The New Jersey Devils were not about having a marquee player, and were rather a sort of Band of Brothers built to complement each other and work together towards the common goal of obtaining a Stanley Cup. This sings volumes to me as to personal goals of Ilya Kovalchuck.
With strong teammates such as Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise, he will surely make up one of the most attractive and productive first lines in the NHL. Then lets not forget veteran Patrick Elias and recently acquired veteran role player Jason Arnott. Offensively speaking, there is a winning formula in place, and the pieces are fit to be in place long enough to threaten the Eastern Conference multiple years in a row. Consider their "strong enough" defense and possession of legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur (2nd best goalie ever) and why wouldn't you choose New Jersey? Are there cons to this pro? It's hard to find any in a city that worships their Devils as one of few marketable sports franchises. Looking across the country to Los Angeles, there lay a different appeal, approach, and direction.
The Los Angeles Kings are a good hockey team. They boast the second best Defensive pairing in the NHL in Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. They have offense in Anze Kopitar (34G ly)and Dustin Brown(24G ly). Jonathan Quick will hold his own in net, and win more games for them than he'll lose. Unfortunately though, they will likely lose veteran winger Alexander Frolov (19G, 51P ly) to free agency. This leaves a gaping hole.
The Kings don't have enough consistent scoring to win enough games in the regular season and avoid an early departure again in the playoffs. With the free agent market drying up fast, there is little GM Dean Lombardi can do to rectify this. Pursuing the veterans available like Modano, Selanne, and Kariya have the local critics saying that,"This would be a mistake, a huge one, and one that Lombardi will not even entertain." There just isn't anything appealing left on the market with Kovy choosing New Jersey as home. So what do the Kings do now?
I will plead with the Kings fans not to panic, first of all. They have a strong, talented, young, defensive core. They have enough to build a team around, and when the $16.25 million between Smyth and Stoll come off the books after next year, you have the potential again to sign that final piece to the sad elusive puzzle. In the meantime, lock up your assets, don't let Johnson, Doughty, and Kopitar get away, and focus on getting better. There is hope in your junior hockey affiliates with Brayden Schenn, and you never know when a draft pick could surprise you and become the next Jordan Staal or Steven Stamkos. The future is bright, and as long as they are not tempted by having cap space to spend on the next free agent fail, they will be competitors sooner rather than later.
As for Ilya, he will be resting comfortably during off seasons on the Jersey shore until his likely retirement at age 44, the end of the currently rejected contract. Playing this full season with New Jersey will give him a chance to learn more about his teammates and help them become more productive. The Devils are now again contenders for the #1 spot.
His value is not overrated, but his longevity will be scrutinized. I know if I were a Kings fan I would have shed a tear last Tuesday morning. However, in the current sports economy, things can change often, and change the face of teams, and the sport itself overnight.
-Scottsdale, The Blue Line, SportstownChicago.Com, Tuesdays 7-9pm CT