One of the big stories that broke yesterday didn’t even have anything to do with the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The Los Angeles Kings announced they signed left wing Ilya Kovalchuk to a three-year deal worth over $18 million. As we all know, Kovalchuk left a bitter taste in the mouths of Devils fans after his unprecedented retirement just three seasons into a 15-year $100 million contract he signed in 2010.
Nonetheless, it makes you wonder where the organization would be if Kovalchuk remained with the team. Would the Devils have endured a five-year playoff drought? Would Lou Lamoriello still be general manager? Would Kovalchuk be donning the “C” on his sweater instead of Andy Greene? Would Kovalchuk have been the first Devils player to score 50 goals?
Kovalchuk’s retirement undoubtedly set the organization back a few years, and forced them into a rebuild (which Lamoriello originally tried avoiding), from which they’re finally starting to recover. Putting everything in perspective, there are some circumstances that wouldn’t have happened if Kovalchuk was still on the team. The Devils wouldn’t have this budding stash of promising young prospects, most of which were drafted in the last two years. That means No Nico, Jesper Bratt, Michael McLeod, or Joey Anderson. Kovalchuk was poised to be the Devils next core player and team face to build around. Always intent on being a buyer, Lou traded draft picks and prospects like free candy, usually for veteran players (normally in the latter-end of their careers). Lou probably would have continued this routine, seeing Kovalchuk as enough reason to justify gearing up for a seasonal playoff push.
We’ll never know if Kovalchuk would have played to the full value of his $100 million contract. My guess is he would have rebounded from his 2012-2013 season, and continue to be a top-end scorer. While you can argue his retirement benefited the Devils through the long-term cap alleviation, it brings up a far greater point (that also circles back to the Devils youth movement) that this current Devils roster wouldn’t even remotely resemble what the Devils might look like at this same time if Kovalchuk remained with the team. Since Lamoriello would probably have remained with the organization, players like Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, and Adam Henrique would most likely still be Devils. That means the Taylor Hall trade wouldn’t have happened, along with acquiring Sami Vatanen. Considering Lou’s win-now mindset and how it swayed him to target more tenured players, I doubt the Kyle Palmieri trade even happens either.
To sum everything up, I’m sure the Devils would have been better over the last five seasons if Kovalchuk hadn’t done what he did. I doubt they’d be anywhere near a Stanley Cup contender, but also can’t see the Devils looking as promising in the long term as they currently are, along with having a team this young that some touted as the fastest in the league this season.
I don’t know about you, but while the last couple of years have been rough, I think that the way things panned out with Kovalchuk wound up being for the best.