Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ilya Kovalchuk’s Redemption Tale

By Mike Chen

What a difference a year makes.

At this time last year, the New Jersey Devils were an afterthought and one of the major talking point about the Devils' season was Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk and his new 15-year contract didn't do much to endear themselves to the New Jersey faithful that season, as Kovalchuk's awful start (9 goals in the first three months of play) made him the subject of much mockery.

For Devils fans, it was "what did we get ourselves into?" For critics, the targets were all too easy — stereotypes like "lazy Russian player" and "greedy free agent" came out despite Kovalchuk's good second half. The barbs were many and they were tipped with plenty of venom. Ironically, Los Angeles Kings fans made plenty of comments about how they dodged that bullet, since Kovalchuk danced with signing in LA.

If you needed examples of players who tailed off in their late 20s, the NHL record books offer plenty. 2010-11's 31 goals and 60 points certainly weren't bad, but they weren't good enough for a 15-year contract.

Fast-forward to today. The Devils are gearing up to face the Kings for the Stanley Cup, and look who's on top of the scoring race — Ilya Kovalchuk. And it's not just a hot playoff run either; Kovalchuk returned to form this year with a healthy 83 points in 77 games. For the first half of the season, many New Jersey fans lobbied that Kovalchuk could be an early Hart Trophy candidate, and at the end of it all, there's no denying his impact on the team.

So what happened? Did he flip a switch and turn off the "lazy Russian player" and "greedy free agent" modes? Or did he have very ill-timed bad year?

Kovalchuk's first half of the 2010-11 season was a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. The Devils were unbelievably bad under new head coach John MacLean, but they also dealt with their share of major injuries. During that time, whether it was bad luck or lack of linemates due to injury or just a transition period under MacLean. (Kovalchuk claims a big part of it was that his family being away from him for that first New Jersey season.) Of course, there was a transition period under incoming coach Jacques Lemaire, and many expected Lemaire's defensive system to be Kovalchuk's doom.

Instead, the reverse happened. Lemaire turned the Devils around, putting together a stirring run. More importantly, he turned Kovalchuk's game around while instilling a new defensive responsibility in the star player. Lemaire noted that he had a good relationship with Kovalchuk and that Kovalchuk was always willing to learn.

Today, while no one will nominate Kovalchuk for the Selke Trophy anytime soon, there's no doubt that he's a more complete player. His natural talents — his shoot, speed, and ability to hit a one-timer — are still as prominent as ever. However, Kovalchuk is now fully buying into a team concept. And while that 15-year contract may still look a little bit on the absurd side, it's easier to swallow all around.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from Ilya Kovalchuk's season is one of redemption. As sports fans, we're quick to judge based on the now — not the past and not the untapped future. Call it maturity, adjustment, or coaching, but Kovalchuk was able to show that a big contract and a bad year aren't necessarily the beginning of the end for a star player. We've seen examples before of finesse players transforming their game to become winners (Mike Modano, Steve Yzerman), but there have been those players that have failed to adapt (Alexei Kovalev).

In the case of Kovalchuk, it's a reminder that change is possible. Kovalchuk comes with the worst of stereotypes, from the notion that Russian players are selfish to the idea that players take it easy following large contracts. He had plenty of excuses to fall back on, and yet he put together a season and an evolved style of play that bucked all of that. If Kovalchuk can do that, then maybe there's hope for the other so-called enigmas out there.

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