Modern sports coverage is dominated by players that polarize their fan base. Lakers fans couldn’t have been more excited when their team acquired Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic. But, as is often the case nowadays, the crowd’s exuberance faded along with their patience when the team’s slow start didn’t live up to ludicrous expectations. Soon reporters and the people of Los Angeles alike started wondering if it might be time to trade Dwight away and come up with a Plan B.
The same story has happened time and time again. Whether it was Alex Rodriguez with the Yankees, or Carmelo Anthony with The Knicks, established superstars that come over to a team with a winning tradition are expected to produce immediately. Not just points, but championships. For fans of the New Jersey Devils, expectations are just as high for super-sniper Ilya Kovalchuk.
Since being acquired from the Atlanta Thrashers 3 years and 11 days ago in exchange for a whole lotta’ nuthin’, Kovy’s status is oddly dependent on who you’re talking to. The Russian winger is simultaneously reviled and beloved by the Jersey faithful. To some he is a lesser version of the scorer that annually registered 40-50 goals in Atlanta, while others see him as a more developed and complete player now that Jacques Lemaire and Pete DeBoer have drilled it into his head that real men play at both ends of the ice. Each side of the argument remains steadfastly locked within the camps of either team “Koval-suck”, or team “Goal-valchuk”, and there seems to be little or no room for debate.
If you look at the experiences of similar newcomers around the rest of the sports world, it seems like several factors made this outcome inevitable. Kovalchuk came from a one-man show down in Atlanta where the entire offense revolved around him, just like Alex Rodriguez in Texas, Carmelo Anthony in Denver, and Dwight Howard with Orlando. Like all these players, Kovlachuk’s looming contract expiration put every single play under the microscope for fans to analyze whether or not it would be worth it to commit to him long term (of course, A-Rod’s opt out clause was still several seasons away, but that didn’t stop everyone from immediately speculating about the record deal he would get from the Yanks, Angels or Cubbies). But, most importantly, in all these similar situations, there was an established presence that the newcomer had to contend with. A-Rod was coming into Derek Jeter’s house and moving to 3rd base for him. Melo was the man who broke up a torrid Knicks lineup with which Amar’e Stoudemire and Coach Mike D’Antoni had gotten off to their best start in years, and Dwight Howard is dealing with playing second fiddle to Kobe Bryant in the Staples Center. And, when Kovy arrived in Newark, the Devils’ fans had already fallen in love with Zach Parise.
Parise grew into the great NHL scorer that he was right before the eyes of the New Jersey fans. He endeared himself to them immediately with his fantastic hands, lightning fast skating, and unbeatable hustle. Kovalchuk came onto Zach’s team, and no matter how well he played that wasn’t going to change. This showed at every turn. When Kovy signed his contract committing his entire career to the Devils, an unprecedented acquisition for a mid-market team like New Jersey, the fans worried themselves sick over how they would be able to re-sign Zach two years later. When Zach went down with an injury at the beginning of the disappointing 2010-2011 season, Kovy’s critics overlooked the loss of the key weapon and the failed John MacLean experiment. It was Kovalchuk that they blamed for not getting it done. He just couldn’t win. Even last year, with Kovy putting up an MVP caliber regular season and post season, Zach Parise’s contract was still all people could talk about until the day he finally took his act to St. Paul.
The 2012-2013 season is the first year that New Jersey is #17’s team and the fans still don’t know how to look at their top scorer. Obviously, he’s still one of the most talented offensive players in the world, with a shot that threatens to break the sound barrier. But, he’s also one of the most unselfish players on the ice, a quality edition to the penalty kill, and the hardest working forward in the NHL, ranking 9th in the NHL in time on ice, and being the only offensive player to rank in the top 30. With steadily improving offensive and defensive numbers, the Devils’ superstar seems to have found the balance in his game and remains a threat in all facets of play despite having lost his all-star wingman. The big Russian has become a true part of this team, yet somehow, it’s still not enough for some.
Ilya Kovalchuk is still burdened with the image that he crafted for himself in Atlanta. Despite consistent and noteworthy improvement, two more seasons in the minus column means that he still can’t overcome his reputation as a defensive liability. And yet, the drop off in his scoring numbers means that fans will always be disappointed that he’s not putting up the prolific numbers that made him The Ilya Kovalchuk.
New Jersey’s fans are realizing now what other teams have proven time and time again, that the only thing harder for a superstar on a new team than living up to the numbers that gave them their stardom, is living up the expectations of their new fans. Even LeBron James and Miami’s stumbling beginnings had people talking about breaking up the big three before last year’s championship win. Is that how far Ilya Kovalchuk will have to go to gain the admiration of 100% of the Devils’ Army? It might very well come to that. It’s hard to believe that a future Hall-of-Famer and workhorse like Kovy, who committed himself entirely to the Red and Black wouldn’t be accepted by the fans, with or without a ring. However, in a place with a tradition like New Jersey’s, that might be what it takes.