Ilya Kovalchuk was a top-rated player when he was on the New Jersey Devils. When the Devils traded for Kovalchuk in 2010, the idea was that he was supposed to be the central piece in what was supposed to be the next great Devils team.
It was an up-and-down start for the first few years. He got to play in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, but the following year, things changed. After the lockout-shortened 2013 season ended with the Devils failing to make the playoffs, Kovalchuk made a decision that many people around the organization felt was a betrayal.
Kovalchuk left the Devils to play in Russia, forcing GM Lou Lamoriello to terminate the contract that still had 12 years on it. This move became a low point for the Devils, who already lost Zach Parise the season prior and David Clarkson just a few weeks earlier. They didn’t know it yet, but this started a rebuild for New Jersey. Fast forward to now, the Devils are thriving and are once again a Stanley Cup contender. So, what exactly changed between Kovalchuk’s time here and now, and why are the Devils better off without Kovalchuk?
Much Better GM
During Kovalchuk’s time in NJ, Lou Lamoriello was the only GM he had. In fact, it was the only GM most Devils fans knew. While Lamoriello was still known as one of the greatest GMs, his later years didn’t produce great results. He wasn’t precisely more help to build around the team after the 2009-10 season. The biggest reason for this was the contract extension that Lou wanted to give Kovalchuk, which was the 17-year, $102 million, which got lowered to a 15-year, $100 million contract. Because of the salary cap, the contract had led to lower signings and draft picks that, while they may be suitable in the long run, were nowhere near the talent that Kovalchuk hoped the team would acquire.
It took several years and one more GM before the change, but the Devils finally found a great GM in Tom Fitzgerald, that knows how to build a well-run team. While he may not get all the top guys in every free agency class or draft, he understands what the team lacks and finds players to help the team get closer.
Guys like Timo Meier, Dougie Hamilton, Luke Hughes, and Simon Nemec are great examples of guys Fitzgerald added through trades, free agency, and the NHL Draft. While some contracts may not always work, such as the Ondrej Palat contract, he still finds ways to ensure the proper contract works for both parties. While Ray Shero did get guys like Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Jack Hughes in the draft, Fitzgerald changed the team for the better for the future.
Much Better Players
When Kovalchuk was on the Devils, he didn’t precisely have high-caliber talent around him. For the most part, it was a lot of players in their 30s, like 36-year-old Jason Arnott and 34-year-old Patrik Elias. He did have solid teammates in Zach Parise, Marek Zidlicky, Travis Zajac, and Andy Greene. As for draft picks, Kovalchuk did play with Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson. Most other players were secondary players who could have good plays and moments, but not too often. It wasn’t a team solid enough to make several playoff runs.
Thanks mainly to the rebuild, the Devils got top players in the most recent drafts, like Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, with two No.1 overall picks. In the 2020 draft, Fitzgerald was able to locate a great player named Dawson Mercer. In the few drafts that the Devils didn’t win, they were able to select guys like Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec, who could soon be part of an excellent NHL defensive core.
As for players not acquired by the draft, the Devils have Timo Meier, Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula, and John Marino. The Devils also recently acquired Flames forward Tyler Toffoli. Toffoli scored 70 points last year and led the Flames in goals and points. Having Toffoli on a line with Jack Hughes is such a fantastic combo. These kinds of players and roster make the Devils far better than what they had with Ilya Kovalchuk.