Kovy deal: Devils get elusive scorer; Thrashers get best possible return

February, 4, 2010
02/04/10
10:20
PM ET

Martin Brodeur's cell phone was on overload Thursday night.

It seemed the whole world wanted him to know his New Jersey Devils had just acquired the most talented offensive player on this season's NHL trade market. And he was pumped about the news.

Turns out the NHL's all-time winningest goalie won't have to pitch shutouts for the Devils to win playoff games in the spring. Two-time 50-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk has been parachuted in from the Atlanta Thrashers thanks to one of Lou Lamoriello's most aggressive moves in his storied history as Devils GM.

"We just got ourselves a top scorer," Brodeur texted me. "I'm happy of the commitment from the organization toward our team. He will bring a different look to our team."

Uh, yeah.

When you consider the Devils have never produced a 50-goal scorer in their franchise history, I think you can say Kovalchuk brings a different look to this team. Even if it might be for just a few months.

If you're the 37-year-old Brodeur, it's about the here and now. So that's why he was ecstatic Thursday night. The Devils have a shot this season, so why not go for it?

Lamoriello saw his team dip to 21st in the NHL in goals per game, the lowest of the top 10 teams in the NHL standings. Of course, the Devils are first as usual in goals against, but I think the team's lack of a deep run in the postseason since the lockout convinced Lamoriello that defense isn't the only thing he needs.

What's more interesting to me is Lamoriello decided he needed this fix only recently after his Devils began to sputter. It's usually unlike him to act so fast on something of this magnitude, but that's exactly what happened.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell was in New Jersey on Sunday scouting the Los Angeles Kings for the potential Kovalchuk deal. The Devils had never called him at that point.

"The next day, I got a call from Lou just exploring where I was in the process and what I was looking for," Waddell said Thursday night. "So with New Jersey, it just started this week. Lou is a very determined person; he knows what he wants to do and he knows what he can afford to give up, so the process with them moved very quickly."

Imagine that. You've got Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, among others, dutifully working on this thing for weeks, and the Devils come in from the backstretch and win the race. Good ol' Lou.

Will the move be good enough? I like it even better if Paul Martin is the Paul Martin of old when he finally returns. An offense now led by Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner is pretty good. It still doesn't rank with Washington and Pittsburgh in the East, but then again, those teams don't have Brodeur in goal.

Kovalchuk has zero career playoff victories, so we really don't know how he'll react on this kind of stage or to the first time coach Jacques Lemaire tells him there is indeed something called the defensive zone. But if he embraces playoff hockey with the Devils the way he embraced winning gold medals for Russia at the past two world championships, Devils fans just might be in for a treat come April.

As for Atlanta, I doubt Waddell could have done better under the circumstances. Kovalchuk was going to walk as an unrestricted free agent on July 1; the Thrashers had to not only get something in return for their most important asset but also do it while not pulling the plug on their chase for a playoff spot. That's a balancing act, and acquiring a top-four blueliner in Johnny Oduya and a decent second-line winger in Niclas Bergfors to help the team right now was paramount.

"It was important for us to make sure we added two assets to our roster right now," Waddell said.

Looking ahead, the Thrashers are real high on Patrice Cormier, the captain of Canada's world juniors team last month whose vicious elbow got him suspended for the rest of the season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Keep in mind Atlanta's associate GM is Rick Dudley, whose scouting acumen is right up there with that of anybody in the game. He helped build the Chicago Blackhawks you're seeing tear up the NHL these days. If Dudley says Cormier is a keeper, that's good enough for me.

"We had asked for Cormier, and they were really resilient about that; they wanted to talk about other prospects," Waddell said. "I said to Lou, 'This is an important piece for us, and it has to be in the deal.' Once we got past that point, we were able to get it done."

Listen, the Thrashers are not as good a team today without Kovalchuk. Not even close. But you can't blame Waddell for balking at giving a player the maximum allowed under the salary cap this year, $11.35 million a year. He confirmed Thursday night that amount is what Kovalchuk wanted in a long-term deal.

I don't blame Kovalchuk and agent Jay Grossman for asking. If Kovy hits the unrestricted free-agent market in July, he'll be the youngest superstar in that position. But I agree with Waddell: You can't build a championship team with a player accounting for 20 percent of your payroll. They're not paying anyone 20 percent of the cap in Pittsburgh or Detroit, the past two Stanley Cup-champion teams, so I'm not sure why any other team should, either.

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