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Trading for Ilya Kovalchuk was the Right Call: A Defense of the Deal

Was the Kovalchuk trade worth it? In my opinion, yes. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Was the Kovalchuk trade worth it? In my opinion, yes. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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After an early playoff exit for pretty much any team in pretty much any sport, the analysis and "expert" opinion quickly comes out in articles, posts, and other media.  Fingers are pointed. Questions are raised.  Decisions made during the season are second guessed.  Veiled accusations are made.  So on and so forth, both from people who follow the team regularly and those who just swoop in like vultures picking a carcass.

One of the biggest stories of the 2009-10 season was the big trade for Ilya Kovalchuk back in February.  As a reminder, here's the full deal: the Atlanta Thrashers received Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier, the Devils' first round pick in 2010, and the Devils' second round pick in 2010.  In exchange, the Devils got Kovalchuk, defenseman Anssi Salmela, and the Thrashers' second round pick in 2010.   Back then, I said it was a bold deal.   The Devils had trouble on offense, Lou went out and pulled in the best available forward in terms of talent and production in exchange for an underwhelming-in-2009-10 Oduya, a rookie winger, a prospect center who's known more for his elbow than his skills, and a pick.

Now that the season has ended in failure, it's a legitimate question to raise: was the trade worth it?  This was the main point by Joe Fortunato at From the Rink on Friday. 

But the question is still valid. is it worth giving up the farm for a shot at the cup? Obviously hindsight is 20-20, and in the end it comes down to a case by case basis; but as of right now the Devils have to be kicking themselves. I might be a Rangers fan, but I'm smart enough to know that Lamoriello is one of the best general managers in the league. I was surprised when he made the move, although I'm not entirely surprised that it backfired on him.

The short answer: Yes, Joe.  Yes it was. And I'm not so certain it backfired.  I'll explain more after the jump.

I am a big believer that any time a team has a chance to add an asset that could bolster their talent for the postseason, it compels a team to do it.  Yes, the Devils have failed in the 2010 playoffs as they have done in 2008 and 2009.  Still, a franchise never knows when they are going to have their big opportunity to go deep.  That opportunity may not come again.  I'm telling you my perspective now, as it frames what I think forward in this post.

Moreover and more importantly, it's not every season where a player of Kovalchuk's caliber is available for trade. Especially for what the deal costed in terms of assets.  Joe mentions that the Devils gave up the farm for Kovalchuk, nevermind that the only non-NHL players in the deal were a junior-level prospect, and two draft picks.  The "farm," as it were, is still in Lowell. 

The Future the Devils Gave Up

Joe's not the only one raising this issue of the Devils giving up their future.  Ken Campbell highlighted the Devils' low ranking THN's Future Watch rankings as evidence that not only was the trade regrettable but as a reason - to Campbell's credit not the only one - that the Devils "are no longer a model franchise."  No, I don't think Scott Burnside had a hand in that article. Here's the bit lamenting New Jersey's lack of

The Devils were once the toast of the NHL when it came to player development, but that time has long passed. In THN’s annual Future Watch edition, New Jersey was always among the top teams, even in years when it was winning Stanley Cups and picking late, while the farm team was always stocked with good talent.

But since the lockout, the Devils have been pulling up the rear in Future Watch rankings, finishing 20th in 2006, 27th in 2007, 29th in 2008, 30th in 2009 and 25th in 2010. Their AHL farm team, meanwhile, made the playoffs for the first time in nine years this season, but was bounced in the first round.

The last impact player the Devils chose in the draft was Niclas Bergfors, whom they dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers to get Ilya Kovalchuk. And without a first round pick in this year’s draft, also because of the Kovalchuk trade, there won’t be any help coming from there in the near future.

Jersey has never been afraid to make a big trade, the way it did with the Kovalchuk deal, but the difference before is that it was brimming with prospects and had more NHL-caliber players than it had spots for them to occupy, so it could afford to part with assets. When New Jersey makes a trade like that now, it simply strips the organization of assets it needs and that is so unlike the Devils it’s difficult to comprehend.

With all due respect, Mr. Campbell, but how about opening up these rankings so we can see who was in the system that THN considered for their rankings and compare them to what their current careers are.  I find it amazing that Bergfors is considered here as an impact player nevermind that he was drafted in 2005 and didn't break into the NHL until 2009-10.  Not bad for a team with such a low Future Watch ranking - which ultimately means nothing tangible anyway.  Unless you care that much about what THN thinks.

I want to break down Cormier for a bit, since he was the prospect in this deal.  You know, the "future" part of this deal. He wasn't a bad prospect at all. He was fairly well regarded up there among the Devils' prospects per Hockey's Future as he was the fifth highest ranked prospect back in this evaluation by Jared Ramsden back in August 2009.  Cormier survived the first cut at training camp back in September, sent back to Rimouski so he can continue to develop with playing time. He was named to the 2009 Canadian World Junior Championship team and captained the 2010 Canadian WJC team. Being designated as the team's leader in such an important tournament for prospects on a team loaded with talent is high praise.

But he wasn't the top prospect in New Jersey.  Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby, Matt Corrente and Brandon Burlon are all still Devils prospects - with Corrente having received playing time with New Jersey in spot duty during the season and playoffs.   Most may know Cormier for his elbows; but discipline issues aside, his upside is limited.  Hockey's Future regards his future as the following:

While Cormier may not be the most naturally gifted player, he's a well-rounded a prospect. He possesses both the offensive skill set and defensive acumen to eventually be a two-way force at the next level. Will turn pro in 2010-11.

Take it as you will, it's entirely Cormier may explode in talent in time. We're talking about a player who's most productive season in junior was 51 points in 54 games.  That's pretty good, but he wasn't exactly dominating his peers in scoring. Even so, it sounds to me that the Devils traded someone who could be a solid player, but not anyone exceptional.   The Devils have plenty of two-way forward prospects, who's to say that, say, center Adam Henrique couldn't be that type of player?   Not only did the Devils keep prospects who were more highly regarded in the system in the deal, but they kept players with higher upsides that Cormier in even just Tedenby and Josefson.  Not to mention that Corrente may very well be in New Jersey full-time by next season.

As far as the draft picks go, well, those are wild cards.  Perhaps Atlanta drafts someone great and make this deal look worse in retrospect. Perhaps Atlanta drafts someone who doesn't even make the NHL, which would make this moot.  Given that it usually takes years for prospects to develop fully, they really are unknowns and no one will know until far into the future.  So worrying about it now, I think, is pointless.

My whole point: I really don't know how much anyone can argue that the Devils mortgaged a significant part of their future in this deal.  Cormier could turn out to be a good player and the picks could result in good assets for the Devils.  But as of now, Cormier's not a prime prospect and the draft picks are just that right now - picks.  Not having a first round pick makes the 2010 NHL Draft less interesting for Devils fans, but the later rounds could very well yield solid prospects and the Devils do have a few picks, including Atlanta's second round pick in 2010.

If you rated Cormier that highly, then it may ease your mind that he was a second round pick in 2008.  The Devils may very well get his "replacement" right there.

The NHL Players Shipped Off: Bergfors and Oduya

I could be smug and say that the short-term of the deal didn't hurt New Jersey at all since Atlanta didn't make the playoffs at all.  I won't be though.  Of course, rookie Niclas Bergfors played great right after the trade.  He was quite productive and showed his talent among his potential.

Atlanta 2010 - Nicklas Bergfors 27 8 9 17 -3 0 1 0 2 0 83 9.6

Yet, the key phrase is "right after the trade."  In five games with Atlanta in February, he scored 3 goals (2 game winners) and picked up 1 assist.  A near immediate impact, as he was pointless in his first game.  Yet, a quick look at his game log at shows that he really scored here and there in March and April.   For a rookie that's not bad at all, but it wasn't as if he caught on fire and proved Devils fans that trading him was a mistake.  I look at this and see a player who's been useful, not an impact player as Ken Campbell called him.  Unless I'm missing something obvious, I'm not sure what impact.

Now, if Bergfors develops into a regular 30-goal scorer, then I can see how this hurts.  But just like Cormier and the picks, that's a long-term situation.  I believe that's a huge if for Bergfors given it depends on not only what skills will Bergfors grow in, but also what situation he'll be in with Atlanta. Will a new coach utilize him differently?  What about his linemates? From what I've seen of him playing, he's got a good shot, good instincts, yet he's not particularly adept on the boards and he isn't as committed to backchecking.  Some of that will improve over time - hopefully the defensive responsiblities.  But as it is, he's projected out to be a second line winger and as fine as that it is, that's not a difficult role to replace.  There are plenty of second line wingers that can be had through free agency and the draft.  So unless he really is special, I don't think the Devils lost someone special in this deal.

Which brings me to Johnny Oduya.  In 2008-09, I was enamored with his play.  I loved how much he grew as a defender. I said multiple times last summer that the Devils needed, needed, and really needed to keep him. I was very glad that the Devils re-signed him.  Unfortunately, Oduya leapt back completely as a Devil.  Prior to his injury, he was making multiple, costly mistakes and providing nothing up front.  After his injury, he wasn't making as many mistakes but still found himself starting on the third pairing and still providing very little offense.  At the end of the season, I explained why I felt he played below expectations in New Jersey.

Atlanta 2010 - Johnny Oduya 27 1 8 9 6 12 0 0 0 0 24 4.2

In Atlanta, Oduya certainly was more productive and regularly played 20-21 minutes a night, with more ice time logged as the season came to a close per the game log at  Since Behind the Net doesn't breakdown on-ice/off-ice stats for players who played on multiple teams, I'm a little hesitant to say he was better in Atlanta than he was in New Jersey.  It doesn't seem that he was as underwhelming as he was a Devil. 

At age 28, I doubt he's going to develop much more; and I still think he's a talented top-4-caliber defenseman.  Yet, with the ascent of Andy Greene, this season I'd almost say he's already been replaced.

My main point with this section: The Devils may have given up useful players in Bergfors and Oduya, but they aren't irreplaceable.  Short of Bergfors skyrocketing as a player and Oduya figuring out how to improve on his 2008-09 form, I don't see how the Devils will be burnt by this.

Essentially, I'm really not sure how one can argue the Devils gave up a whole lot for Kovalchuk, much less Kovalchuk plus young defenseman Anssi Salmela.  Again let me repeat the cost: A first round draft pick (the second rounders were swapped).  No prospect with a major upside.  A then-rookie winger who has good but not great potential. A defenseman who struggled to meet expectations after his new contract.  Had Lou shipped off Tedenby or Josefson, then there's more of an actual argument that the Devils dealt away their future - but I'm not buying it and I don't think Devils fans should either.

If this was all it took to snag a winger who's had multiple 50-goal seasons, then I don't see how any GM in the league wouldn't have made this move.   Perhaps for that alone

The Player Itself: Kovalchuk

Well, since he is the focal point for this entire discussion, let's now evaluate Kovalchuk as a Devil:

Devils 2010 - Ilya Kovalchuk 27 10 17
27 9
0 1
0 111 9.0
Playoffs 2010 - Ilya Kovalchuk 5 2 4 6 0 6 1 0 0 0 19 10.5

How was Kovalchuk right after the trade? Well, good but not great, as I said in this in-depth analysis made mid-way through March.  But by the end of March, I felt he was worthy of the Devil of the Month distinction; and again in April as one of the few Devils who was productive in both the regular season and the playoffs.  I listed my reasons for both in those linked posts. To that end, I think he did well as a Devil.   That he was able to settle down a bit in New Jersey in his personal life and the birth of his third child seemed to take a load off his shoulders and that translated to his performances, leading to more points.  Rarely did he have a bad game as a Devil, and if the concern is that he tries to do too much - well, given what the Devils fans witnessed in the postseason, I'll take that concern everytime over the opposite.

Of course, with a player as blessed with talent as Kovalchuk, the expectations are higher and so 10 goals may not be enough.  I don't necessarily agree.  A point per game pace since coming to New Jersey despite a huge drop in shooting percentage - 17.6 as a Thrasher, just 9.0 as a Devil - is pretty impressive to me.  The whole point of getting a scorer like Kovalchuk was for him to produce and I'd say that 33 total points in 32 games suffices as production.  If you think that wasn't enough, then I'd like to know what would be reasonable to expect.

What he didn't do was make the Devils instantly better. The team still slumped into the Olympics and the performances in March were mixed overall.   Also, the power play still muddled it's way through the final few months of the season and into the playoffs despite the addition of Kovalchuk.   I don't think that can be entirely Kovalchuk's fault, you'd have to look at the games itself as to why the Devils lost so many more times in 2010 than they did 2009.  As for the power play, Kovalchuk's done what the coaches have told him. Given the personnel, I'd say the lack of success at just consistently threatening teams with the power play falls on the coaches, come to think of it.

Speaking of, Kovalchuk has had not one public issue as a Devil.  Not one complaint. Not one incident where one had to wonder if he caused a problem.  I'd like to take this moment to point out this part of Ken Campbell's article on THN about the Devils: Be amazed by the contradiction.

It doesn’t help when Kovalchuk is brought into an atmosphere where it was impossible for him to be a good fit. He played well; actually it looked like he was playing his heart out, but an individual talent such as Kovalchuk can’t be incorporated into the Devils culture that quickly and seamlessly.

Impossible? Or can't be incorporated that quickly? They're not the same, so which is it, Ken?

As to whether he was a good fit or not, here's Lou Lamoriello on Kovalchuk, as reported by Tom Gulitti in this post.  I think it pretty much answers this:

"We certainly would like to keep him," Lamoriello said. "He has been anything and everything that we have asked of him. He’s been a solid citizen. He’s bought into the program. He’s given the effort. So, there is no question that we would like him to be a Devil."


"Some of the things that Ilya did, you don’t correct over a short period of time," Lamoriello said. "He didn’t do anything that wasn’t asked of him, but he is a player that could become a Devil very quickly."

The bold is my emphasis and I don't have anything to add to that.  I think it's pretty clear. Someone let Campbell know and then ask whether or not he was a good fit in the New Jersey Devils organization.

My point: Kovalchuk did well in New Jersey and I don't think the playoff failure is really his fault or even mostly his fault.  Of course, being a member of that team he does share some of the blame.  But I don't believe that had Lou not make this deal, all things being equal, the Devils don't encounter the same problems in the postseason.  To state otherwise only serves to make Kovalchuk a scapegoat.  He did what was he told, he put in the effort, he put up points, there's no indication he caused any problems in the locker room or elsewhere, and if the sole issue was that the coaches couldn't implement him correctly - that's on the coaches, not Kovalchuk.  The only promise Kovalchuk didn't deliver on was winning Game 5, but the team's performance and on-ice mentality ensured that wasn't coming true - not necessarily Kovalchuk himself.

So, no, I don't think the deal backfired because the team failed - Kovalchuk didn't flop as a Devil.

The Worst Case Scenario: Kovalchuk Doesn't Re-Sign

The big elephant in the room for the Devils is whether Kovalchuk is offered to re-sign in New Jersey.  Let me repeat that: offered to be re-signed.  It's not whether Lou re-signs Kovalchuk.  As Kovalchuk is an unrestricted free agent, it's up to Kovalchuk and his agent to determine what they want.  All Lou can do is make an offer.  Kovalchuk can accept or reject it.  Simple as that.

While the Kovalchuk trade reminded some fans immediately of the Alexander Mogilny deal in 2000, this may turn out to be a repeat of the Doug Gilmour trade in 1997. 

Lou sent three young players: forward Steve Sullivan, defenseman Jason Smith, and prospect Alyn McCauley to Toronto for Gilmour.  I believe his contract then was through 1998, so it wasn't quite a rental but Lou saw those players off for good. In 1996-97 and in 1997-98, Gilmour put up some very good numbers as a Devil but didn't help them get over the proverbial playoff hump and signed with Chicago after the 1998 playoffs.  The Devils did indeed give up three very good young players and both Sullivan and Smith have enjoyed very fine careers in their own right.   In retrospect, more was given up in that deal and yet the Devils were still able to continue on after Gilmour - and eventually far more success in both the regular season and the playoffs.

So, there's precedent that good players can be shipped off and it won't necessarily kill off the Devils' chances of doing well in future seasons.

Again, since I don't believe the Devils gave up so much in this trade, Kovalchuk not re-signing doesn't mean the Devils will get screwed by the deal in the future.  It doesn't mean that the deal to bring in a scorer on a team that really needed a boost on offense was a poor idea to make.   Did it work out as well as hoped? No, but the playoff failure by New Jersey has had a lot more to do with other aspects of the team.  Had Lou not make the deal, those root problems would be there.

Now, whether or not I want Kovalchuk to re-sign is an entirely different question and worthy of it's own discussion.  But to finally put lie to my whole spiel, yes, the Kovalchuk trade was definitely worth it due to it's relatively low cost and that Kovalchuk has played and produced well as a Devil.  Were Lou to do it all over again, I'm confident he would have without question.

Let me know what you think about Kovalchuk and the trade in the comments.  If I made a mistake or you have a different perspective, please let me know there too.  Thanks for reading.