With all due respect to Johan Hedberg -- we love ya, Moose, but you could have been replaced by the immortal Yann Danis for the last month and I doubt anyone would really have noticed -- the player I'm talking about here is Ilya Kovalchuk.
Ilya Kovalchuk is a lightning rod. The man is under contract until the end of the 2024-2025 season. He bears the highest salary cap hit in the history of the Devils, at $6.667 million per season. He was the focus of an entire summer as the saga of his locale of employment played out. The cost to acquire his services from the Atlanta Thrashers was high, and the cost to retain his services through the free agency process was also high.... not to mention the whole Kovalgate saga that still obliges the Devils to forfeit a 1st round draft pick (likely this summer). Starting next season, Ilya Kovalchuk will make between $11 million and $11.8 million for each of the next five years, a king's ransom by any NHL standard.
Ilya Kovalchuk is an immensely talented player. The combination of that and his salaried compensation combines to create even greater expectations. Ilya Kovalchuk is expected to perform at a very high level, and to do so on a consistent basis. When he does so, it is easy for the naysayers to brush off said performance as "what Ilya Kovalchuk is expected to do". When he fails to do so, blame attracts to him like iron filings to a magnet. We've seen repeatedly over the two-plus years of Ilya Kovalchuk's employment in Newark the team often follows his lead: when Kovalchuk is very good the team wins, and when Kovalchuk is held in check the team struggles.
With all that preamble established, I want to say something very simple. Thank you Ilya Kovalchuk. Thank you for the myriad of blessings rained down upon you, and that you have rained down upon us.
Thank you Ilya Kovalchuk for the immense output you've provided in your Devils' tenure. For all the goals and points you racked up this season despite being slowed at times by injuries or by being obliged to double-shift with (then) fourth liners who should not be on an NHL sheet of ice. For putting this team on your back during the near-miracle run late last season when the Devils rallied from last in the entire League to an almost-playoff team. For your shootout heroics this season that earned the Devils many an extra point in the standings. Even for the punch that Brayden Schenn still sees in his nightmares, a moment many Devils fans will never forget.
Thank you Ilya Kovalchuk for being a supremely talented player putting his talents on display for our benefit. Ilya Kovalchuk is perhaps the single most-talented player to ever don a New Jersey Devils jersey -- absolutely the most talented forward, and in the Top Three most talented Devils of all time depending on where one wishes to place Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer in this equation. Ilya Kovalchuk is the first genuine gamebreaking forward the Devils have employed since the halcyon days of Alexander Mogilny and his short Devils tenure between March 2000 and the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals, the kind of player capable of scoring at any time from anywhere in the offensive zone simply because he possesses hockey gifts that other players cannot match.
Thank you Ilya Kovalchuk for being The Guy who wanted to play in New Jersey. It would have been very easy to walk away after the disappointment of the 2010 playoffs and give it a try somewhere else. That "somewhere else" could have been a sizable contract offer from his native KHL. That "somewhere else" could have been another franchise that would have allowed him to return to his freewheeling Atlanta days where the team was built around him and the goal was to accumulate fabulous numbers. That "somewhere else" could even have been the Marian Hossa route of taking less money to go to a "ready to win now" sort of team as a complementary piece. Thank you for being the player who wanted to stay, unlike Paul Martin and Scott Gomez most recently before him who bolted for more money and a team that looked more ready to win immediately. Thank you for having the strength of character to come back when few would have blamed you for departing after having already done everything that was expected of you.
Thank you Ilya Kovalchuk for wanting to be such a complete hockey player that you willingly sacrificed some of what you did very well in order to become a better player. You had the humility to ask/beg Jacques Lemaire to teach you some of the finer points of playing defense. You demonstrated the work ethic and drive to follow through on those desires instead of merely paying lip service to your stated aims. You have become such a complete player that consecutive coaches have trusted you at all the key moments in the game, from times when the Devils need some extra offense to rally in a game to scenarios where the Devils are forced to protect their lead.
Thank you Ilya Kovalchuk for being a face of the franchise, and for conducting yourself with the grace and dignity us Devils fans expect of our stars. You answer to the media and to the fans after every game you've played, whether good or bad, and I've yet to see you lose your patience or treat the media in a condescending fashion -- even in the darkest hours. Thank you for never making news off the ice, whether in the police blotter or on the gossip pages of the local newspapers.
Thank you for showing everyone how much fun "the job" can be at the high moments. While it may not seem to be "the Devils way" most of us are accustomed to, know that I (and many others) appreciate seeing your demonstrative emotional reactions. The anger and dismay when things go poorly. The exultation of scoring the big goals. The camaraderie with your teammates.
Thank you Ilya Kovalchuk. Thank you, thank you, thank you.