Evolution of Ilya Kovalchuk Could Mean He Becomes New Captain
Two and a half years ago, if someone outside the New Jersey Devils organization were to say that star forward Ilya Kovalchuk was to become the franchise's 10th captain, they might have laughed at you.
When Kovalchuk was acquired by New Jersey in February 2010, he was a player who had never had any playoff success, didn't like to play defense, and had an overall reputation of a player who put himself before his team.
Now, everyone knows that wasn't going to fly in New Jersey. The Devils are the franchise, after all, that doesn't allow players to have Twitter accounts, for some time, only allowed player to choose numbers between 1 and 30, and still doesn't give out the number 13 to anyone. Being above the team simply doesn't exist.
It didn't take long for Kovalchuk to learn that. In his first half-season with the Devils, he averaged a point-per-game. He scored 10 goals and added 17 assists in 27 games. He got his first taste of playoff success with the Devils that season too. In five games, he scored two goals and posted four assists as New Jersey was eliminated by Philadelphia.
Still, in those 32 games, Kovlachuk kept his sniper role on the team, and it took time for him to learn the ins-and-outs of playing on an annual Stanley Cup-contending team.
Throughout the first half of his first full season in New Jersey, he struggled. Long-time Devils assistant coach John MacLean got the head-coaching nod, and the team struggled.
After 33 games that put New Jersey in a 9-22-2 hole, MacLean was fired and his successor, Jacques Lemaire, was re-hired in an attempt to revitalize a team that somehow forgot how to win games and play as soundly as they once did.
With Lemaire behind the bench, everything changed for Kovalchuk.
Lemaire had been known for being able to remodel the body of a player, but Kovalchuk was different. He had star talent, but it had to be worked into a system that worked for the team. He was a player, when he came to New Jersey, that had made the playoffs one time, and that's when the Atlanta Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers in the 2007 playoffs.
It was under Lemaire where Kovalchuk learned the concept of back-checking. Over time, he worked his way onto the power play, and even later, he earned time on the penalty kill, something no one would have dared to place him in his days with Atlanta.
The Devils reeled off a 23-2 streak over the second half, the Devils still fell short and didn't make the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. But, Kovalchuk earned the respect of his teammates and coaches, and soon, the rest of the league. He finished 2011 with 31 goals and 29 assists, with his 60 points being good enough for second-best on the team behind Patrik Elias.
In 2011-2012, Kovalchuk thrived under Devils coach Pete DeBoer, and soon, his power play position along the point become popular league-wide, and teams began to zero in on him. He finished the regular season with a team-high 83 points on 37 goals and 46 assists, and regained his mantra as one of the best scorers in the league.
He also anchored the Devils penalty shot lineup which was the best in the NHL. New Jersey led the league in shootout wins with 12, and Kovalchuk was the very reason for that.
And then, the playoffs came.
With all eyes on Kovalchuk, who was expected to see his first serious playoff action in his career, he did it all. He played over the final two-and-a-half series with a herniated disc in his back and was among the best player in the league for New Jersey as they reached the Stanley Cup Final.
Kovalchuk missed one game in the playoffs -- game two against the Flyers in the second round -- but he came roaring back in game three, having arguably the best game of his career in a 4-3 overtime win.
He eventually led the league in playoff points, tallying 8 goals and 11 assists in 23 playoff games.
Now, with former captain Zach Parise leaving for the Minnesota Wild in free agency, Kovalchuk has a chance to become a captain for one of the most successful hockey franchises over the last decade and a half.
If someone were to say Kovalchuk would have led the playoffs in points two years after he was acquired by the Devils, and would lead them to a Stanley Cup finals appearance a year after they missed the playoffs, that person would have been laughed at, too.