How Will New Jersey Devils Fill Scoring Void Left by Ilya Kovalchuk?
Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, who was thought to be the New Jersey Devils' cornerstone after signing a 15-year, $100 million contract, decided to abandon the team to return to Russia. While the news was indeed shocking, Kovalchuk had been pondering the decision since the end of last season's lockout.
The three-time All-Star forward posted 201 points in 222 games in just over three seasons with New Jersey. He was arguably the most skilled player the franchise had ever seen and suddenly leaves the team feeling empty in the scoring department.
Emotions aside, the Devils must now look forward and address the burning question: How will they fill the void left by Ilya Kovalchuk?
Current Roster Players
It would have helped to have David Clarkson be included in this list, but unfortunately, he bolted for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Pete DeBoer and his staff will most likely have to work with what they’ve got in this department.
At first glance, you’d expect guys like Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique to step up in Kovalchuk’s absence. In fact, a lot of people would argue the latter two would have had to play a role regardless of Kovalchuk’s retirement.
Henrique, who was a Calder finalist a year ago, recorded just 11 goals in 42 games last season. It was a disappointing sophomore campaign for the 23-year-old who showed so much promise in his first full season. One could credit his drop-off to a wrist injury that bothered the center early this past season.
Hopefully he’ll return to form when the Devils need him the most.
Other roster options include last year’s surprise acquisition, Andrei Loktionov, who showed he has what it takes to be an above-average goal scorer for New Jersey. He was able to rack up eight goals in 28 games in a red sweater, which is nothing to write home about, but over an 82-game season, we could see Loky hit the 20-goal threshold.
The team has been waiting for what seems like forever to see if Mattias Tedenby has what it takes to be an effective point producer for the Devils, so this might be his best shot. DeBoer tried injecting Tedenby on the first line to see if that would spark some offense, but nothing seemed to work. This could be the 23-year-old’s last chance with the Devils, so perhaps he’ll rise to the occasion in desperate times.
It's a pipe dream, but the idea of top offensive prospect Reid Boucher getting a look at training camp isn't out of the question.
Recent Signings and Remaining Free Agents
Before Kovalchuk made his announcement, the Devils signed forwards Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder, both of whom are proven scorers in the NHL.
Clowe, a longtime San Jose Shark before being traded to the New York Rangers, scored 15-plus goals in five of seven seasons in San Jose. He was brought in to fill the void Clarkson left, but could be asked for more in light of these events. Clowe’s size suggests he'll replace Kovalchuk on the penalty kill, but don’t expect as many shorthanded goals from Clowe.
Ryder, a Stanley Cup Champion with the Boston Bruins back in 2011, pretty much does nothing but score. The 33-year-old veteran is just one season removed from a 35-goal campaign and had reached the 30-goal mark twice before that. Ryder instantly becomes the lead candidate to replace Kovalchuk on the first line, as he will be the team’s most dangerous scoring threat.
The Devils could also tap into the remaining free-agent pool. A name immediately brought up was Jaromir Jagr, another superstar who previously deserted the NHL for the KHL. The problem with Jagr is his asking price, coupled with a potential unwillingness to play Devils hockey.
Ex-Detroit Red Wings forward Damien Brunner is still on the market, and the Devils are reportedly closing in on a deal for the winger. Brunner comes from a similar system, which would make for an easy transition to New Jersey. Vancouver Canucks winger Mason Raymond is also an option.
Note: Because the Devils do not have a 2014 first-round draft pick, they are unable to sign a restricted free agent to an offer sheet.
Potential Trade Candidates
It would have been nice if Kovalchuk gave general manager Lou Lamoriello the heads up before free agency began. The Devils could have made a run at ex-Anaheim Ducks winger Bobby Ryan, but unfortunately, he was dealt to the Ottawa Senators.
With Ryan off the market, Lamoriello will have to work his magic if he plans on replacing Kovalchuk with an exceptional forward.
New Jersey could give the Buffalo Sabres a call about leading scorer Thomas Vanek, as Buffalo looks to be rebuilding. The Devils may have a chance as the Austrian native is entering the final year of his contract. While Vanek doesn’t bring a physical game to the table and lacks Kovalchuk’s trademark slap shot, he adds more finesse.
While adding Vanek would certainly ease the pain, it would also cost the organization a few top prospects, potential draft picks and possibly a rotational player.
A three-time All-Star, Patrick Marleau could be made available by the Sharks if the offer were right, as his four-year $27.6 million contract is set to expire after next season. The Sharks have plenty of young offensive talent, and New Jersey could certainly use the 33-year-old’s offensive services.
The veteran forward is San Jose’s leading goal scorer with 404 in his career. Marleau also brings intangibles, having been to the playoffs 14 times in his 15-year career. The Sharks may be hesitant to part ways with him, but if anyone can pry him from their jaws, it’s Lou.
A more realistic trade partner would be the Edmonton Oilers, specifically right wing Ales Hemsky, whose contract has one year, $5 million left on it. Hemsky would certainly cost less than Vanek and Marleau, but he doesn’t provide the kind of offense and leadership the Devils are lacking.