“Yeah, but what has he done in the playoffs?” was the typical response whenever anyone wanted to take a shot at New Jersey Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk. And, on the surface, it seemed like a safe arguement. After all, since his first year in the NHL (2001-02), his teams have only seen the postseason twice. And even then, those teams only managed one win between them before being ushered out of the playoffs in the first round. Much of the blame fell upon the shoulders of the big Russian, fairly or unfairly.
In 2006-07, the Atlanta Thrashers made their only appearance in the playoffs by capturing the Southeast Division title and the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The New York Rangers swept the Thrashers out of the playoffs with Kovalchuk recording a goal and an assist in the process. Inconsistent goaltending for Atlanta with Henrik Lundqvist locking down the Ranger cage proved to be the downfall but, long after the fact, many found it easy to make Kovalchuk the scapegoat. Never mind the fact that no other Thrasher on a roster that included Marian Hossa, Keith Tkachuk, Scott Mellanby and Slava Kozlov failed to score more than one goal.
Fast forward to the 2009-10 season where, now as a member of the Devils, he found his team quickly ushered out of the playoffs, this time by the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1. This coming after Kovalchuk’s decision to not re-up with the Thrashers (turning down a reported $100+ million deal from them) forced the trade that sent him to the Garden State. Kovalchuk once again took much of the hit for the exit despite collecting six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the five game series. The reality of the situation was that the Devils ran into a talented team that came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup that dissected the Jersey defense and goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Fast forward to this season’s playoffs and it’s been Kovalchuk who has been the Devils best skater (apologies to Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique) in their surprising run to the Eastern Conference final. While fighting through the pain of what’s been reported as a herniated disc, he’s put up 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) in 14 games. He’s been phenomenal on the power play, scoring four goals with two helpers in that span. And now, all of the talk of of playoff bust has turned to him being a possible Conn Smythe winner should the Devils go even further in these playoffs. It’s amazing what being on the right team at the right time does to change perception of a player.
To be fair to the critics, some of the knocks on Kovalchuk are justified. The soap opera that was his free agent courting following the 09-10 season that stretched on for what felt like an eternity didn’t do anything to destroy the ‘primadonna Russian’ stereotype that he had been saddled with. And before his half season under Jacques Lemaire last year, he didn’t seem to terribly interested in defensive hockey much of the time.
But helping him through the proverbial ‘maturing process’ was the fact that this player has a skill set that very few, if any, other players in the NHL possess. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he’s gigantic by hockey player standards. Yet, despite that size, he’s as fast as anyone else you can name with hands that are among the very best. And with a wrist shot as hard as most player’s slap shot, he’s as dangerous as any player in the league with the puck on his blade. But the knock on him being among the true elites has always been the lack of success his teams have had in the playoffs. Now that, he’s performed AND his team has had success in the postseason, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be mentioned among the game’s elites with regularity because that’s exactly what he is. His 406 goals since coming into the league and this postseason say so.
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