By Pat Pickens
Whenever I compare Ilya Kovalchuk to non-hockey fans, I always refer to him as the NHL’s version of Alex Rodriguez.
In some ways, it’s a bit ambitious to make that claim. Rodriguez is arguably the greatest baseball player of our generation and a household name. Kovalchuk, on the other hand, has never even recorded a 100-point season and is regularly overshadowed by names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Lundqvist in terms of brand.
Yet Kovalchuk, like Rodriguez, is saddled by the weight of a long and pricy contract — and will be for the foreseeable future. The NHL just locked out thanks to deals like Kovalchuk’s 15-year, $100 million contract, the longest and third-richest deal the league’s ever approved. Ovechkin is the only forward to receive a more lucrative deal.
When Kovalchuk is on, he’s clearly amongst the league’s elite. He logged the most ice-time of any Devil last season, leading the team in goals (37), points (83), and shots (310). Kovalchuk registered team-highs with eight goals and 19 points in the Devils’ Stanley Cup Finals run a year ago, despite a nagging back injury that hampered him in their six-game series loss to Los Angeles.
Some would argue, and have, that Kovalchuk hurt his back in the Devils’ 2010 playoff “appearance” trying to carry New Jersey’s offense on his back. There-in lies Kovalchuk’s “A-Rodian” tendency. The Russian-sniper’s confidence wanes when he doesn’t score and on the biggest stage, some argue he tries too hard.
In 2010-11, with Zach Parise sidelined for all but 13 games, Kovalchuk recorded his lowest scoring output since his rookie season. With Parise departing for Minnesota’s greener pastures, the onus is on Kovalchuk to lead the Devils offensively.
There’s little margin for error, thanks to a 48-game season and Petr Sykora’s departure. The pressure is even more considering the Devils’ run to the Finals last year. Kovalchuk hasn’t exactly placated Devils fans, either, through his “will he or won’t he” KHL/NHL saga.
But, if New Jersey has visions of a repeat Finals appearance and dreams of drinking from Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2013, Kovalchuk will need to be the guy.
Pat Pickens is a lifelong Devils-fan and New Jersey native. To pay the bills, he works as a sports reporter for Hearst in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter here, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org