It was an extremely busy week around the National Hockey League, to say the least. The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired Dion Phaneuf and J.S Giguere last Sunday, the Columbus Blue Jackets fired head coach Ken Hitchcock last Wednesday and now the New Jersey Devils have won the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes, acquiring the Russian superstar last Thursday.
In exchange, the Thrashers received defenseman Johnny Oduya, forwards Niclas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier, and the Devils' first round selection in the 2010 entry draft.
Unlike the two players the Leafs obtained in Sunday's trades, the movement of Kovalchuk has been spoken of and speculated for months. It was just a matter of figuring out what team he would be traded to and when, especially when the report came out recently that Kovalchuk rejected a 12 year, $101 million contract extension from the Thrashers
Although at first glance it may seem obvious that the Devils won this deal, the ultimate winner remains to be determined.
The Devils do pick up one of the most dangerous offensive talents in Kovalchuk but will Ilya reign in “hell” for long? His contract, which pays him a total of $7.5 million this season (the Devils pay him $2.2 million) expires at the end of this season; you have to wonder whether the Devils can afford to pay Kovalchuk that kind of money (potentially more) when forwards Brian Rolston, Zach Parise, and Patrick Elias are all set to earn $5 million each in 2010-2011.
Also, the Devils lost a key piece of their defensive core in Johnny Oduya. Would money in the offseason (rather than going to Kovalchuk) be better suited towards signing a big name defenseman like Marek Zidlicky or Pavel Kubina, both of whom can quarterback a power play? Especially with Paul Martin becoming a UFA come July 1.
On the flip side, there are experts in the hockey world who believe that Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell took a backwards step with his franchise and lost big in the Kovalchuk deal. But Waddell did the best he could with the situation he was put into.
With his hands basically tied behind his back, Waddell not only acquired a core defender in Oduya but a young speedy forward in 22 year old Niclas Bergfors who, although has been held off the score sheet for much of 2010, has proven in stints this season that he can contribute offensively on a game-to-game basis. Waddell also received the Devils' first round pick and prospect Patrice Cormier.
Also, the huge amount of cap space that Kovalchuk would have taken up is now free, and with all three of the Thrashers goaltenders becoming free agents this summer, Waddell could use some cash to lock up a legitimate starting goaltender. Apologies to Johan Hedberg and Ondrej Pavelec who have performed admirably during points of this season, but neither has shown they can consistently perform as an NHL starting goaltender.
On top of that, is it worth putting money down to sign Kari Lehtonen who hasn’t played a game all season?
In the end, losing a star like Kovalchuk is any GM’s nightmare. But Waddell can at least be content that he added a couple of assets in the process. And although losing Kovalchuk may bump them out of the playoffs this season, it gives them room to add depth and improve their team for seasons to come.
As for Lou Lamoriello and the Devils, Kovalchuk is a player who could push them to the Stanley Cup. And if he does, they will have to be considered the winners of this deal.
Rental player or not.
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