On Thursday, Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) boarded a plane with the Atlanta Thrashers for a game in D.C. against the Washington Capitals on Friday. Little did he know that by the end of the day, he’d be closer to contending for the Stanley Cup than he’s ever been in his NHL career.
Let’s face it: Playing for the New Jersey Devils, from a hockey standpoint, is a great opportunity for Kovalchuk to show what he can really do. As for the reasons why his time with the Thrashers ended, I’ll analyze them at the end of this interview.
Kovalchuk flew to New Jersey from Washington late Thursday night to join his new team. After a busy morning, I caught up with him to chat about the trade and his future, for at least a few months, with the Devils.
“I was told two days ago that I would be traded. So, I have to say that I was ready for it. I was told, however, that I was going to Washington to play for Atlanta. That’s why I didn’t pack anything with me,” Kovalchuk said. “And it turned out that I was traded. I came to New Jersey only with my wallet. No clothes! That’s why I have to pick some time in this busy schedule to travel to Atlanta to pick up at least some of my clothes.”
Q. Does that mean you don’t even have your equipment with you?
KOVALCHUK: My equipment was sent to me. I have already got new gloves, which do not have Atlanta’s covers. But I want my old ones to be sent to me.
Did you have any say at all in where you would be going?
No, not at all. I did not have a choice to pick any team. But I am happy I was traded to New Jersey. It’s a very good team that won Stanley Cups. And right now there is only one goal for the team — it is to win the Cup. It’s a great chance for me.
It has to be a new feeling for you to be on a team that is second in the Eastern Conference and is considered a real contender for the Cup with real expectations.
It’s a good challenge to have. It’s always a great feeling to play for a good team. I don’t want to say that Atlanta was a bad team. But there was always something missing, there was just something we didn’t have. The organization here is simply first class. Everything is at the highest level. And the goal is set at not just making the playoffs, but to actually win the Cup. I have my first game with the club today, and there is another one tomorrow. I am going to try to enjoy this moment.
I am sure this has been a very busy day for you. Have you followed the coverage of your trade in the media and what was said?
No, I am not following it. It’s in the past now. Why start throwing punches after the fight is over?
Don Waddell said you weren’t concerned about the future of the franchise in your decision: “I don’t think so. If we would have paid him the max amount, he would have signed the contract.”
[With a sigh] Everyone has their own opinion. I can only say that I always thought of fans. That’s why I was trying my best, I was giving my best at every practice, every game, every shift. It’s silly to talk about it.
A lot of fans talk about your interviews in the past when you stated your desire to stay with Atlanta. Maybe there is something you want to tell them?
What can I say other than to thank them? I want to thank them for treating me really well. I tried to repay by showing my best hockey in every game. I really did give that 100 percent, 110 percent. That’s why I can honestly look them in their eyes. I think they should also realize that life doesn’t stand still, that the Thrashers have a lot of good, talented guys, who, God willing, will take the team to the playoffs and will compete for the Stanley Cup.
Can you talk a little bit about the reasons why staying in Atlanta didn’t work out?
We just couldn’t agree on certain things. To be honest, I don’t want to go back and discuss what could have been. It’s all in the past now. You can’t bring it back, you can’t turn back the clock. I live today. And today I am happy that I am a New Jersey Devil.
You were drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers and played there for eight years. I bet you felt at home in Atlanta. What are your feelings now that you have to sort of start all over?
Of course eight years is a huge amount of time. My son was born in Atlanta. My house is there. I am not planning on selling my house. I will go back there every offseason. I am going to keep coming to Atlanta because it is a great city that I can call my second home now. I will always have the best memories of the city. I still have a lot of friends there. That’s why I will keep coming back to Atlanta.
Did you have a farewell dinner with your now former teammates? What did they tell you?
I didn’t have a farewell dinner as such. It’s just when the guys found out about the trade, they came over and we went out. What did they say? They just said it was a shame. I also wished them the best of luck. But as I said before, life doesn’t stand still.
What about the new guys who came over before the start of this season, like Max Afinogenov, who you will play with in Vancouver in a couple of weeks? Did he get upset?
I think you’d have to ask them. But, of course, I think we all got upset, because we liked playing together. But what can you do? It’s business and no one is insured against being traded. You just never know.
You’re right. No one is insured against that. But you were the team captain, a franchise player. I don’t think even the Hossa trade had the same implication as yours. It is an opinion of a lot of people that the franchise may not survive this.
I would sincerely want everything to turn out fine for them. As I mentioned, they have a lot of talented guys who may just raise their level now and start playing even better.
What about your new teammates? Do you know who you will play on the same line with?
No, not yet. I was told I would find out before the game. I practiced with Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) and Dainus Zubrus. That’s the way it was for now. But they said they still were not sure what the lines would be, because Jacques Lemaire likes to change lines. I will find out right before the game who I will play with.
Did you have a conversation with Jacques Lemaire yet? If so, what did he tell you?
He welcomed me to New Jersey. He told me the club was very happy to have me with them. I was told about the system the team plays and that I should fit well here.
Are you ready for that system? I don’t think the Devils had an offensive player of your caliber in at least some time.
Hockey is not a show of one actor. This is a team sport. I won’t try to change my game, I will just try to do my best to help my team win.
A lot of Russian players who played for the Devils never really showed anything remarkable with New Jersey. Apart from Sergei Brylin(notes), maybe. Is this something you thought about?
I never really thought about it. But the Devils have a lot of good players. In any case, time will tell. We’ll see. There is nothing to discuss now. We’re just trying to see the future in coffee grounds.
Has this trade affected you negatively at all? Maybe unsettled you before the Olympics?
Negatively? Not at all. Quite the opposite. I feel great. I am getting ready for games just like I used to. I am just looking forward to playing my first game with the new team.
My opinion on Kovalchuk’s trade …
While everyone is blinded by the $101 million and the $70 million offers that were on the table and approved by the owners, one has to look a bit deeper.
The ownership of the Thrashers have been battling each other in court for a few years. The uncertainty of the owners was one of the reasons the negotiation was postponed for two months following the initial contract talks between Kovalchuk and the club in October. The money simply wasn’t there. With all due respect, attendance wasn’t there, either.
The Thrashers’ revenue is second worst only behind the Phoenix Coyotes. That also means that the money wasn’t there to make a commitment. Blaming Ilya for holding the team to a ransom and the inability to sign players due to the alleged cap hit doesn’t really hold water. The Thrashers have never spent up to the cap. Is there credibility to even mention the cap when you have never been close to it?
(Ed. Note: According to Ben Wright of the Thrashers, in the “first season of this ownership” they exceeded the cap and almost hit it in 2006/2007 with the Keith Tkachuk(notes) and Alexei Zhitnik(notes) deals.)
Unlike the Coyotes, I simply don’t see the NHL stepping in to bail out the franchise in the very near future.
I don’t think you can really expect the return for Kovalchuk to be even close to fair. The Thrashers traded 17.76 percent of their entire goal total in the last five years. More likely than not, they won’t get those numbers from all players combined that were sent from the Devils to Georgia. Kovalchuk was the team captain. Who can forget the horrible losing streak the team posted after the “impasse” reports surfaced a few months ago?
Kovalchuk meant more to the team than most want to admit.
Atlanta fans deserve better.