Schadenfreude is just one of those words I like to toss around whenever somebody does something drastic in hockey that leaves an entire fan base up in arms. The word is a fancy, German way of saying that one is finding happiness in the misery of others. Today, as a Ranger fan, I guess you can see we (and probably many Flyers fans) are experiencing a little bit of that word, because star forward Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils has retired at the ripe old age of 30 to go back to Russia to be with his family…and make more money than he can make here, in a quicker amount of time, and of course, tax-free. He can tell us all he wants about how he wants to be with his wife and children, and that is very admirable, but if he was a man with a shred of honor, and any ounce of brain matter in his head, being a multi-millionaire set for life, mayhaps he could have deduced that bringing his family here was a wiser option, especially since he was only four years into a 15 year mega-deal. What this move is about is greed, plain and simple. As a Ranger fan, yes, I jump for joy, but as a hockey fan I am quite disheartened. This could set quite a negative precedent for other skilled players who might not be on successful teams here in the NHL: when the going gets tough, leave your franchise high and dry and go back to Russia where you can be the uncontested top dog, and rake in even bigger bucks while doing it (will Ovechkin be next?). Kovalchuk, as a superstar still in his prime, can probably get upwards of $15 million a season in the KHL. The most he was ever going to make here was only a minuscule $11.800 million, with his annual cap hit being just under $7 million.
The trade for Ilya Kovalchuk, in retrospect, is going to be one of the darkest days in the history of the Devils franchise, not that it cost them anything spectacular by way of players, but that it opened the door for this disaster. For their entire history, the Devils were about the team player. The stud scorer was always homegrown and always had a commitment to defense; if he did not, he sure as hell had better develop some. The Devils thrived on teamwork and defense-first—it won championships, so why change? Kovalchuk was the antithesis to that, a selfish, offense-only guy who was easily frustrated and disinterested, and could be the best player in the league if he truly wanted to be. The only problem is, he never felt the urgency to want to become that. Sure, his years with the Devils were not a waste, since he was their best offensive player, but the trade that brought him here begged him to be resigned, and in turn, cost the organization a shot at locking up Zach Parise, their real franchise player, who is now in Minnesota.
According to a hockey reporter who I have just spoken to, he alleges that there is something a little bit more sinister here than Ilya simply wanting to be greedy and flee the country, that the parting may have actually been mutual: “The theory is that Kovalchuk wanted to go to the KHL but obviously can’t because he is signed in the NHL. He asked Lou [Lamoriello] to be bought out, but that was declined because it would still cost the Devils $50 million over the years. Instead, Lamoriello told Kovalchuk’s agent to seek a deal in Russia and get a verbal agreement, then come back and tell him that he is retired. This allows him to now be free to go to Russia.” If this is true, and it is likely that we will never know the full story, it shows just how bad financially the Devils are, and that they needed Kovalchuk gone to save the money. The reporter then added, “It’s both a cap circumvention and a manipulation of the system.” The possible deal he received is from SKA St. Petersburg.
Either way, the Devils are in as much trouble on the ice as they are off it. Had they known of this sooner, perhaps they would have drafted a forward at the draft instead of trading their number one pick for goaltender Cory Schneider (they also have no first rounder next season, as part of their penalty for signing Kovalchuk to an illegal deal the first time around). It shows the little faith they must have in Keith Kinkaid, their top goalie prospect. With no outstanding offensive players in the system, the Devils offense will have to rely on center Adam Henrique who has a career high 51 points, 60-point scorer Travis Zajac, a 37 year-old Patrik Elias, and three-goal scorer from last season Ryane Clowe, who has suffered as many concussions in the last year as he has goals. The Devils are rumored to be interested in 41 year-old Jaromir Jagr, who might be enticed to sign in New Jersey to play with Czech-mate Elias, but that would make the already decrepit Devils even older, and much more slower. It would be interesting to see how they proceed further, as all the good players have been signed, and they really do not have any pieces worth trading to better themselves. This is a sad day for the Devils, and could end up being a sad day for hockey.