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Ilya Kovalchuk is Arguably Worth the Assets Given Up (So Far)

Today, much of the New Jersey Devils' news involves three main issues.   One focuses on the eventual ramifications on the players of the eventual salary dumping moves by the Devils.  Will there be bad feelings in the locker room resulting from it?  This post by Rich Chere focuses on that very question and has several quotes from the players, all of which run the gamut of interesting responses.  Truthfully, I can't answer this question partially because no one has been moved yet and partially because it's a personal response - I can't read the player's minds.  It is good that no one is blaming Kovalchuk because all he did was sign the deal, the Devils were the ones making the offer.

A second issue revolves around John MacLean.  Tom Gulitti has a transcript of a media interview MacLean gave about the upcoming preseason, and MacLean's most newsworthy comment was about Patrik Elias.  MacLean asserted that he would be playing at left wing.  Given that Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk are left wings, further questions abound after this statement. Would this mean Elias could be on the third line? Would Kovalchuk or Parise move to the right wing? Is something else happening altogether?  Personally, I wouldn't put much stock into this now.  The veterans haven't reported for camp yet; and it wouldn't surprise me if MacLean does something different after a few days in camp or preseason games.  Of course, this could be changed by the eventual moves to clear cap space, whatever they are.

The third issue, and the focus for this post, surrounds whether Ilya Kovalchuk is "worth it."  Chere brought up this question in the post I referenced earlier, and Gulitti noted that someone asked MacLean this question.   It's true that the Devils have given up several assets for Kovalchuk.  We know of the trade back in February that sent Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, a first round pick in 2010, and a second round pick in 2010 to Atlanta. We know of the contract: $100 million over 15 years.  We know about the fine, which is $3 million for the team as well as two draft picks being forfeited: a 2011 third round pick and a first round pick to be selected by the Devils in either 2011, 2012, 2013, or 2014.  The list will grow with the assets moved for the Devils to become cap compliant for this season; so there is an outstanding unknown.

Personally, and as indicated by the title, yes, Kovalchuk has been worth the assets given up - both the players and the draft picks.  I can't say anything about the contract yet; but let's discuss it all after the jump.

Yes, I wrote back in June that I wanted the Devils to re-sign Paul Martin and not Ilya Kovalchuk.  My argument had nothing to do with Kovalchuk's skillset, just that he would cost a lot of money and it would create a positional issue at left wing.   That didn't happen. Kovalchuk's cap hit isn't as a high as I thought it would be, and Martin wanted to hit the market regardless. This is the situation, so I've learned to deal with it.

That said, let's play a what-if scenario. What if the Devils didn't make that trade in February and everything somehow turned out exactly the same with respect to results, other trades, other signings, and points?  Would the Devils be better off? Would we think the hypothetical, non-Kovalchuk New Jersey Devils would be as solid going into 2010-11?

In my opinion, not really.

Niclas Bergfors had a very nice rookie year with 21 goals and 23 assists.  However, much of his production came when he was hot.  When he was not hot, he wasn't .  That led to justifiable demotions by Jacques Lemaire, notably in January 2010.  Bergfors is clearly a NHL player and he's still learning - he could be a good winger.  However, were he still on the Devils, he'd be pushed by Vladimir Zharkov, a player who worked his tail off getting the puck forward in spite of not scoring, and possibly by prospect Mattias Tedenby.     Moreover, I don't see how a potential second line of, say, Elias-Arnott-Bergfors is really more desirable than Kovalchuk-Arnott-Elias or some other right winger with Kovalchuk and Arnott?  No matter how excited you are with Bergfors' potential, he's not in Kovalchuk's realm.

Keeping Johnny Oduya would at least give the Devils a second non-defensive defenseman along with Andy Greene.  That would make the blueline more balanced, though make it harder for one of the Devils' several defensemen prospects to break through.  I liked Oduya quite a bit going into 2009-10; I liked the deal the Devils gave him in 2009. Last season, though, he seemed to regress - both with Paul Martin at the beginning of the season and without him.  It's not good when you come back from injury and you're stuck as #5 guy on the depth chart after being on the top pairing in prior seasons.  I think Oduya is better than what Devils fans saw last season; but even when he was good, he wasn't as important as his partner Martin and he wasn't an offensive catalyst.  Oduya got outscored by Bryce Salvador of all people, for goodness' sake.   It'd be nice to still have 2008-09 Oduya but I don't think many miss 2009-10 Oduya.

Patrice Cormier still being in the system would only make the third line center battle more interesting.  His style of game focuses on being a two-way, physical player, which isn't uncommon for that position. He'd still have to beat out Jacob Josefson and Adam Henrique, though; and jumping from junior to the NHL would still be a challenge.  If the Devils were planning to make Dainius Zubrus a center again, then Cormier would be going to the AHL like the aforementioned Josefson and Henrique regardless.   My point is that the Devils still have two viable center prospects without Cormier - he is not necessary.

I can't say with any certainty what the Devils would have done with their first round pick and their later second round pick in 2010.  They'd have one more prospect in the system, but I couldn't tell you who that would be. The Devils could have drafted Jon Merrill in the first round regardless for all we know.    The same can be said for the first-rounder-to-be-named-later and the 2011 third round pick.  Maybe these picks turn into NHL players - good players, even.  Maybe they don't.  I don't think it's so outrageous to say the likelihood that any of them become as productive as Kovalchuk is rather low.

I'm sure Jeff Vanderbeek would be happy with not being out an additional $3 million, though.  I'm confident in that.

Even combining all of these assets in a package, I'm really not convinced that the Devils lost anyone truly vital.  Their top 6 would be good, but not frighteningly great without Kovalchuk.  Their defense would be more balanced with respect to the type of defensemen on the roster, but more crowded and would come with a hope that Oduya would return to how he played in 2008-09.  Even then, Oduya wouldn't really address the lack of production from the blueline either. The system would just have one more prospect from the draft, and Cormier still fighting for a roster spot just as he is now in Atlanta.   It's different, but I don't think it would be better.  Let's go back to reality. 

Bergfors was re-signed to a one-year deal worth $900,000.  He got a raise in salary of $400k, which is nice; but you'd think a rookie who put up 21 goals could command more, no?  The one year deal along with the sub-million salary tells me that the Thrashers aren't yet convinced that Bergfors should be a long-term Thrasher. That's fine, it just means Bergfors has to rise to the implicit challenge.  Oduya can certainly rebound in Atlanta, and if he does, that's good for Atlanta.  The Devils could use a two-way defenseman, but it doesn't have to be Oduya, though.  Cormier is one of the prospects Bird Watchers Anonymous is keeping tabs on during rookie camp. In their latest camp report, The Falconer noted his energy and meanness - which is nice, but not exactly what the Devils are missing.

All three of those players will not be meeting Kovalchuk's production combined.  

Then there are the picks. The Thrashers moved the Devils' first round (#24) and second round picks (#54) in 2010 to Chicago in their deal for Dustin Byfuglien.  (ASIDE: I wonder how the Blackhawk players feel given that they did see their teammates shipped off for cap space.  That would give a good idea of how the Devils may react.) The Blackhawks selected Kevin Hayes and Justin Holl with those picks.  They are assets but unknown since they are just prospects right now.  The 2011 third round pick and whatever first round pick the Devils will decide will just be eliminated.  Nobody will get their spot, so they are just lost.  Per Gabe Desjardens of Behind the Net, those picks won't be worth much as-is.  The likelihood they would have turned out to be the next Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac, Elias, or whoever would be low anyway. And we would only know who they missed out on only with the benefit of hindsight.

Lastly, there are the expectations Kovalchuk must live up to.  I think it's fair to say that if the Devils go on to win a Stanley Cup with Kovalchuk, then most will feel this would be justified.  Of course, critics may hit back that Kovalchuk is only 1-8 in his playoff career and so that means something.  I guess having as many Stanley Cup rings as Alex Ovechkin or Henrik Sedin is a mark of failure?  I suppose someone like Chris Drury or Jay Pandolfo must be worth more because they each have a ring?   

I don't think that's a really fair since playoff success is often the result of more than just one player playing well in April, May, and June.  We all know this, we saw this past spring where maybe 3 or 4 Devils were noticeably pumped in each game.  That didn't go so well.  So let's focus on what the player was brought in to do, something he can definitely control to some degree: score. 

Kovalchuk's special skill is his shooting. He's the best in the league at it, Gabe proved it at Behind the Net.  Ergo, if Kovalchuk scores a ton of goals and racks up the points, then how can it be said that he's faltering at his job?  He's a sniper. If he lights the lamp at a wonderful rate, then I'd say he's earning his keep.   But we won't know this until the games are actually played.  So for now, the contract is a big question mark.

Just like who will be moved from the current Devils roster to get the team under the cap.  We'll know that answer a little sooner, and if it's no one vital, then I would be fine with it.

Getting back to today's topic, I don't think Bergfors or Oduya (who's a defenseman) can claim some special skill that sets themselves apart like Kovalchuk can. Especially a skill that directly benefits the team. While I don't want to disappoint the youth, I'm doubtful Cormier, Hayes, or Holl (also a defenseman) will develop into a high-level talent like Kovalchuk.  (And if they could, then why in the world weren't they drafted first overall like Kovalchuk?)

Essentially, to answer this question of whether he's worth it, we have to answer the question of whether all of these assets are better than Kovalchuk.  Individually, I don't think they are; and in a hypothetical situation where Kovalchuk isn't a Devil, I'm not convinced the Devils would be better than the current roster.  Therefore, I think Kovalchuk has been worth the assets traded and lost.   His production alone must be respected, and his shooting alone is special.  If John MacLean can utilize him more favorably than he has been in Atlanta, then this will be apparent.   As the seasons go on, we'll have a better idea of whether he's worth the contract. But right now, as much as I didn't support re-signing him earlier, I'm glad Kovalchuk is wearing Devils red. 

That's my long-winded argument, but now it's your turn. Do you think Kovalchuk has been worth all of these assets traded and lost?  What do you think Kovalchuk has to do to justify the moves the Devils made?  Do you agree with my reasoning?    Please let me know of your opinion in the comments. Thanks for reading.