Martin Brodeur gave his public blessing to the acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk on the first morning of the rest of the left wing’s NHL life.
“You play to win. He’s no different. You see him react when they won the World Championships; how excited he gets when he scores, the celebrations,” Brodeur said about Kovalchuk on Feb. 5, 2010, the day after Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello fleeced then-Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell in the blockbuster trade for the sniper. “That means that he cares.”
Twenty-seven months and one 15-year, $100-million contract later, Kovalchuk has delivered on what he was brought to do: Help get the Devils back to the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s great. You guys [the media] are doing a great job. I think the NHL is doing a great job. It’s a big event. First time I’m ever here,” Kovalchuk said during his press availability at the Prudential Center Tuesday. “It’s great.”
Kovalchuk has been the same during the playoffs. He has been a transcendent force throughout, leading the league in points (18), assists (11) and is second in goals scored with seven. Only the Philadelphia tandem of Claude Giroux and Danny Briere have more with eight each.
Just as vital has been the maturation in his game since the trade. Eric Boulton, a teammate of Kovalchuk’s in Atlanta and in New Jersey, maintains that the perennial 30-goal scorer “had to do too much” in order for the Thrashers to win, whereas now there is talent around him.
“He’s always been successful wherever he’s played. Coming in, he wanted to work on different parts of his game; all ends of the rink. He’s a responsible player. He backchecks hard. He’s great in the ‘D’ zone,” teammate Travis Zajac said. “He recognizes when he has to chip pucks in and when he can make a play. He’s still going to go out there and make a great play and be a dynamic player. Right now he’s responsible at both ends of the ice. He’s basically a complete player for us.
“He’s been a huge part of why we’ve been successful. I know it means a lot to him. He wants to compete hard. He wants to win,” Zajac said. “When we first got him, we saw that — the type of teammate he was, the type of leader he was.”
Kovalchuk’s leadership has been the one aspect of his game that has often been questioned. Critics have routinely pointed to Atlanta qualifying for the playoffs just once in his seven-and-a-half seasons with the Thrashers, forgetting that those teams were devoid of goaltending, defense and upfront skill other than linemates Dany Heatley and Marc Savard.
His other sin, especially in the eyes of media members such as Don Cherry and Mike Milbury, is that he is Russian and Russians simply do not care about winning the Stanley Cup as much as North Americans.
“Big star from Russia. People are going to talk about that,” Boulton said. “It’s the stereotype people in the media [are going to] talk about. ‘Russian players are selfish’ or ‘[They are] all offense and no defense.’
“His game has evolved. He’s come a long way.”
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman throughout the Stanley Cup finals.