This has not been the season that Ilya Kovalchuk envisioned. After being traded to the New Jersey Devils on February 4th for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, and New Jersey's first and second round picks in the 2010 draft (along with Anssi Salmela), Kovalchuk hasn't exactly been a successful addition to the Devils' line-up. He scored 10 goals and 17 assists after the trade to the Devils, and finished an impressive +9. Bergfors scored 8 goals and 9 assists, almost replacing Kovalchuk's goal output for the rest of the season.
Everyone knows about the Ilya Kovalchuk saga over the summer. It took a month past the trade deadline for Kovalchuk to sign a deal with the Devils that the NHL promptly investigated for cap circumvision. Apparently 17 years is too long, but 15 is ok. Of course, it also helps when the contract has the money spread out fairly evenly over those 15 years, instead of paying the player league minimum for the last few years. Kovalchuk and the Devils both expected him to be the offensive lynchpin of a line-up that didn't exactly lack for scorers.
Thrashers fans, while the Kovalchuk saga was playing out, were enjoying the rewards of a blockbuster trade with Chicago which brought Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager to Atlanta - a trade that included both of those former Devils draft slots.
Instead of booing Kovalchuk tonight, maybe Thrashers fans should be thanking him. His leaving gave the Thrashers important pieces of the team's future in Bergfors and Cormier, a solid defenseman in Oduya, and winning pieces in Byfuglien, Eager, and Sopel. The hockey team is more team focused and has more team accountability, and the lack of Kovalchuk gives the team more flexibility for an offensive game-plan that is not predictable. There's no coincidence that the Thrashers powerplay is currently the fifth best in the league now without him. The pass-pass-pass-Kovalchuk shot gameplan that every team knew and broke up is out the window.
Ilya Kovalchuk is currently 130th in the league in goals scored. As of December 15th, 31 defensemen had more points than he did. I don't hear many Thrashers fans bemoaning Don Waddell's decision to trade him anymore.
Someone that I do hear Thrashers fans bemoaning the loss of is former back-up goaltender Johan Hedberg. Moose played four seasons with the Thrashers, the longest tenure of any team he was with. Last season he put up career numbers, going 21-16-6 with a 2.62 GAA and a .905 SV%. Unfortunately, the team couldn't reach an agreement with Hedberg and his agent, Jay Grossman (also Ilya Kovalchuk and Anssi Salmela's agent), and Moose signed in New Jersey with Kovalchuk and Salmela. Moose's luck this year is the same as the Devils' - he has a 4-6-1 record with a 2.93 GAA and a .900 SV%.
Hedberg should get a warm welcome Saturday night from the Atlanta fans. Kovalchuk? The jury's out on that one, but seeing as how the Thrashers have been so successful since the trade, maybe a fruit basket is in order.
"Obviously, it would be a special feeling going back there after four years there," he said. "I still know most of the guys there. That’s always special. But I approach every game the same. It wouldn’t be any different from that standpoint."
Hedberg said he still keeps in touch with "a few of the guys" in Atlanta, most notably fellow Swede Tobias Enstrom. He is happy to see the Thrashers, who are 17-11-5, having some success this season. They’ve made the playoffs only once in their first 10 seasons of existence.
"I think it could be a really good hockey market," Hedberg said of Atlanta. "A lot of things have been happening over the year. When I was there, two or three years they really struggled. I think fans wherever you are want to see a winner and if they’re a successful franchise (on the ice), I’m sure they’re going to draw well."
"A lot of people left and a lot of new people came in and they have a new coaching staff," Hedberg said. "It seems like they’ve got everything in order and I’ve only heard positive things. They’re definitely a team on the rise. We’re going to be in for a tough game there."
Kovalchuk had this to add:
"It’s nice," said Kovalchuk, who was drafted first overall by the Thrashers in 2001. "They made a lot of changes there and it’s worked out good for them. I had a good eight years there and they did everything they could for me to make it feel like home."