One of the most interesting stories to come out of the NHL early in the 10/11 season is the New Jersey Devils having to make a difficult decision to bench, also known as ‘Healthy Scratch’, their star summer acquisition Ilya Kovalchuk for lack of team first defensive play.
The Devils signed the dynamic Kovalchuk to a highly publicized 15 year $100 million deal. The Devils, now in a brand new facility, felt the need for an electrifying player to help sell tickets, and give their defensive minded team a bonified goal scorer and game changer.
What They Got
Kovalchuk, an extremely talented consistent 40 goal scorer, has spent his entire career in Atlanta, where he was the franchise. If he did not score, they did not win. He was also the sole force in bringing any ticket sales on a lowly club that has only made the playoffs once in their history. This meant that Kovalchuk could do whatever he wanted.
What The Devils Are About
Lou Lamoriello and head coach John McLean (who also played for the defensively powered Stanley Cup winning Devils) are smart hockey men who have been successful. Those Devils teams were built from a philosophy of team first and play defensively sound hockey. They have relied on their skill players to sacrifice offensive output and it has worked.
The Salary Cap
The great thing about the salary cap is it puts most of the teams on the same playing field. They are forced to stick with their decisions and work out solutions. They simply cannot just unload Kovalchuk via trade to another team, as most of them will either not want the player or are unable to pick up this heavy contract.
Coupled with not being able to trade Kovalchuk, the Devils cannot just go out and add another elite forward. Those players, if they are even available, on the market are a minimum of $3.5 million dollars and they do not have the cap space to facilitate that need. The only saving grace, for a team, is if they are lucky enough to draft well and have a star player on an entry level (first 3 years pro) deal such as a Stamkos, Tavares etc.
Situations like this help everyone to realize the true value of star players that are able to score, compete and be defensively reliable at the same time. This is why guys like Iginla, Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Toews are held with such high praise. They will never win a scoring title, but their overall game helps the team win no matter who they are playing against.
A solution to this problem, like most issues, must be a compromise on both sides.
The Devils must realize that for Kovalchuk to do his job, in scoring goals and putting people in the seats, he must be able to take some offensive risks. He has proven, over his career, that when he takes the risks he makes results. You could not say this for 95% of the NHLers.
Kovalchuk himself must try to adapt. He must try to fit in with the team system and understand that, unlike Atlanta, this is a tried and proven successful system. He must find a way to be successful within a team framework. Unlike playing for the Trashers, he has other star players, like Zack Parise, to help shoulder the offensive load. The Devils make the playoffs and are competitive every year. There must be a reason for it.
A Look To The Past
The Devils have had this situation before. They acquired Alexander Mogilny back in ‘00, also a prolific high scoring Russian winger. Mogilny ultimately helped them win a Stanley Cup by tweaking, not altering, his approach to the game. They need to do they same and find the right balance.
Check out our video about this blog and more at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwdO-YRnFPc