Thursday, February 4, 2010

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

kovalchuk tradedThe NHL trade deadline is a month away, but there have already been three significant trades. The latest, consummated hours ago, involves the heavily rumoured Ilya Kovalchuk. It was not surprising in the least that Kovalchuk is no longer a member of the Atlanta Thrashers, but what is surprising is the team that acquired him, the New Jersey Devils.

The Kovalchuk trade appeared imminent after Don Waddell released a statement this morning explaining the contractual impasse the two sides had reached. In the statement, which is found in its entirety here, Waddell says that the Thrashers offered Ilya a contract more than $101 million over 12 years and also made an offer of $70 million over 7 years (which would make Kovalchuk the league’s highest paid player).

The release of the statement was a PR move by Waddell in an attempt to protect himself from blame from an Atlanta fan base that sees a superstar traded for the second time in only two years. Will anyone in Atlanta even notice? If hockey isn't dead there already then this trade will dig the grave.

It’s clear that Atlanta did everything they possibly could to retain the talented winger, based on both the will to make Kovalchuk the league’s highest paid player and their attempt to sign him to the largest free agent contract in league history. Unfortunately, for Waddell and the three Thrashers season ticket holders, this wasn’t enough.

It’s easy to paint Kovalchuk as a selfish player willing to extract as much money as he can from the free agent market, but in reality, even the maximum amount allowed under the salary cap probably isn’t enough to keep him in Atlanta. This is a franchise with a tenuous ownership structure which will go before a Maryland judge on February 13 to decide whether Steve Belkin can buy the team out at cost or whether the seven other owners can buy out Belkin’s 30% stake. Riveting. They have also only made the playoffs once and are still peddling hope for a distant future. Let’s not forget they play in Atlanta to a half empty arena each home game. Who would want to stay?

Why would Kovalchuk want to languish in such an uncertain situation when he’s set to become the youngest and most talented player to ever test unrestricted free agency? He will be able to secure his financial future, while also being able to play in a market that actually cares about hockey and can challenge for a Stanley Cup. Or he can just go to the KHL with the promise of some exorbitant amount of money. Greedy or not, leaving Atlanta is what almost anyone else in his situation would do.

So, it seems clear that Kovalchuk is going to test the free agent market. If he has turned down the contracts that Waddell says he has, then it’s highly unlikely that he will re-sign with the Devils before July 1. This is the primary reason that the Thrashers weren’t able to obtain the absolute maximum value for their superstar. It’s the reason that the Devils didn’t have to destroy their system to obtain him for the stretch.

After all the rumours and speculation the New Jersey Devils send Johnny Oduya (who is somehow Swedish), rookie Niclas Bergfors, Patrice ‘elbows’ Cormier, and a first round pick to the Thrashers for Ilya Kovalchuk and Anssi Salmela (who the Devils traded to the Thrashers last March for Niclas Havelid). In addition, just for fun, the teams exchanged second round picks in 2010.

New Jersey, currently sitting second in the Eastern Conference, adds a tremendous talent, while relinquishing very little. Oduya is a steady defenceman, currently making $3 million for two more seasons, who has 4 points and a +2 rating in 40 games. Niclas Bergfors is having a nice rookie season and currently has 13 goals and 27 points to put him fifth in league scoring among rookies. He’s only 22 and was New Jersey’s first round selection (23rd overall) in 2005. Atlanta desperately needed players to step in their lineup right away and these two will. Cormier captained team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships, but is suspended for the rest of the QMJHL season after his vicious elbow to the head of Mikael Tam.

This trade definitely takes Atlanta right out of the Eastern Conference playoff race as the pieces they received in return aren’t enough to sustain their contention. The players they received back are more than just young prospects to give the Atlanta faithful hope, but they aren’t anything spectacular either. It’s probably the best Atlanta could hope for considering their unfavourable trade position. Atlanta’s top three scorers are now Maxim Afinagenov, Nik Antropov, and Rich Peverley.

Both Kovalchuk and Parise are left wingers, so it remains to be seen if they will play together in New Jersey, but this move gives the Devils the ability to roll two lines with two of the top-10 most dangerous players in the league on them. Their defence looks thin, especially with the injury to Paul Martin, but they still have Martin Brodeur in net, so their deficiency is certainly masked.

Does this trade make the Devils the team to beat in the East? Probably not. But it does separate them from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Ottawa, who all are within 2 points of New Jersey. This trade allows the Devils to challenge the Capitals of first place in the conference.

It will be exciting to see Kovalchuk and Parise play together, even if it's just on the powerplay.


Theodore said...

Great title, Roy. I gotta agree with you that this definitely sets Jersey up for a serious Cup run... and with Kovalchuk in the linup it could actually be entertaining to watch for once! It's a pretty good deal for Atlanta too; Bergfors has obvious skill, 1st round pick .... probably near the end of the round, and the greatest hockey name since Jeff Beukeboom in Johnny Oduya. When you get played out like Kovalchuk did to the Thrashers, you're glad to get anything, so this represents a pretty good haul.

Matt Horner said...

It's weird that it was Jersey that ended up landing Kovalchuk since they never seem to be in on these types of deals.

I guess Lamoriello realizes they don't have much longer to win with Brodeur since he's getting on in age. Might as well take a shot to win a cup now.

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