Ilya who?

If you ask a New Jersey Devils fan what their opinion is of Ilya Kovalchuk coming back to the NHL, you will get three answers:
1) He will be welcomed back with welcomed arms as he is a massive solution to our scoring woes, especially as the (New Jersey) Devils have had issues this season scoring 5 on 5, and more recently they have relied on the power play to score goals.
2) The only reason he will be welcomed is to trade his rights to another team for assets.
3) A resounding no based on morality regardless of the outcome of him coming back.

If you’re not aware of the history, the Devils traded with the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers in 2010 and added Kovalchuk to their roster. The Devils gave up defenseman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, junior prospect Patrice Cormier and a first round selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Once Kovalchuk’s contract came to an end, the Devils began negotiation of a new contract in the off-season, which lead to (what a fan of any other team no doubt describes as) entertainment; this was due to the first contract being rejected by the NHL due to claims it circumvented the rules of the salary cap.
A second contract was negotiated and accepted, however the NHL advised that the consequences of such a result was the loss of a first round and third round draft pick and a monetary fine. The Devils did appeal the loss of the first round pick and did receive it back, albeit the 30th pick regardless of where they finished in the season.
At the end of the 2012 season where the New Jersey Devils lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final, the Devils held the 29th pick. This is where, at the time, I would have given the first round draft pick as compensation; however the Devils used the pick. In hindsight it wasn’t really a good decision that fans were happy with, including myself, however it ended up turning out ok.

After two full seasons and the lockout-shortened season in 2012-13, a shock announcement was made that Ilya Kovalchuk was retiring from the NHL on grounds he wanted to play back at home in the KHL. This came after he played in the KHL during a lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season, and even delayed returning to the New Jersey Devils after a new player’s agreement was ratified.

Fast forward to now and the rumours of him returning to the NHL return (and tend to every year), of course around the trade deadline. What makes this more interesting this time is that there has been a public comment made that (apparently from) Kovalchuk if his benching does not stop, he will cancel his contract and return to North America (sounding familiar?).

If you read the article from Sports Illustrated that was posted last year, you will see that there are ways for Kovalchuk to return to the NHL, and after the latest rumours, it has fuelled debate once again.

So the question is, should Ilya Kovalchuk be allowed to return to the NHL? As you can see from the Sports Illustrated article, and the various opinions of New Jersey Devils fans, it’s not an easy answer.

For me, I liken him to the phrase “He who should not be named” as I fall quite strongly in to category 3. As a Devils fan and my upbringing, I place integrity, principles, and loyalty as strong values.
I just cannot allow myself to want a player on the team when they put their own selfish needs ahead of the logo on the jersey (to paraphrase Lou Lamoriello); Kovalchuk used the excuse of going home to quit on the Devils, however it was also in regards to a better tax rate and higher paid income which helped him move back to Russia.
He is now doing a repeat (although more publicly than the shock of retiring from the NHL) by threatening to leave his KHL team and return to North America. This just shows the sort of character and person he is. Why on earth would any NHL team want that sort of risk, let alone character, in their locker room? Kovalchuk is creating a pattern for himself and soon no one will want to touch him, not only due to possibly upping and quitting on his current team, but potentially the locker room atmosphere he may create.

As much as the New Jersey Devils need more scoring in any regard (and let’s be honest, these past several games have been nothing short of embarrassing), they should not be looking to Kovalchuk as a solution, especially when they have Pavel Zacha (2015 sixth overall draft pick) currently playing in the OHL and doing well who should be making the team next season, the upcoming trade deadline and free agency period, all before next season. Ray Shero has shown he is looking at a long term rebuild and should not be looking at a short term solution that is Kovalchuk.

If the New Jersey Devils do not offer a new contract to Kovalchuk, his only options will be to request a vote from all 30 General Managers to allow him to return, or to wait until his current KHL contract ends and wait a full year without playing any sort of hockey. This puts Kovalchuk’s age at 35, and starting to get to an age where his time may run out to return to the NHL as an effective player.

I’d be very happy to never see him in the NHL again, but that’s just me.

The New Jersey Devils are your Stanley Cup Champions! (Not really)

It has been a busy week with the (New Jersey) Devils playing four (4) games in the past 8 days; a home and home series against division rivals New York Islanders, and a small three (3) game home stand against the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks and the St. Louis Blues (still yet to play).

The Devils have been playing a strong, fast style this season under new head coach John Hynes, however the home and home series against their division rivals the New York Islanders was always going to be a big test (as well as the next few games too), and this certainly showed.

The Devils looked tired against the Islanders. In the first game, the Devils managed to score twice to be 2-0 however the Islanders fought back in the second period tying up the game however neither team was able to score in the third period to win. Ultimately the game went to a shoot-out where the Devils once again impressed and won.
The second game against the Islanders the Devils fell behind 1-0 however tied it up in the third only to have the Islanders score late to win the game, splitting the home and home series.

Considering that the Islanders have been the stronger team over the past couple of seasons, and even to the point of the Islanders going 4-0 against the Devils last season, to see the Devils fight and get one win in the home and home series is a good start.

The Chicago Blackhawks came in to town to start a three (3) game home stand, and this really was one of the first big tests for the Devils this season, facing the 2015 Stanley Cup Champions.

The Devils did not give the Blackhawks any opportunity, scoring four (4) goals in a row. The first period was littered with three (3) goals, and the second period provided the fourth – however the Blackhawks did score one, the Devils going in to the final period leading 4-1.

Once the clock hit six (6) minutes remaining, I witnessed something I had not seen before – the Blackhawks’ coach decided to pull the goalie for the remainder of the game in an attempt to have the Blackhawks’ deep offense try and win the game.
This was worrisome for two reasons – the Devils have struggled to clear the defensive zone let alone score an empty net goal over the last season or so, and the fact that the Blackhawks’ offense is scary good.
The Devils, whilst not scoring an empty net goal, did an amazing job and only allowed the Blackhawks to score one further goal, winning the game 4-2.

At this point of the season, the Devils are 7-5-1 and actually looking good, and whilst early in the season, on the cusp of a wild card playoff spot (albeit with plenty of games to go). This is an accomplishment however considering that over the past two or so seasons the Devils have started slow, and in fact quite terribly. A good start to the season could mean a lot after the trade deadline and heading toward the March – April stretch of games.

The Vancouver Canucks have always been a tough opponent for the Devils, and their games have never disappointed, this one included.
The second game of the three game home stand started with a bang; Vancouver struck first 2:20 in to the game, however Adam Henrique scored a beautiful short-handed goal shortly after to tie the game. Mike Cammalleri scored late in the period to give the Devils a 2-1 lead heading in to the second period.
The second period saw Sergey Kalinin score his first NHL goal moving the Devils to 3-1, however the Canucks fought back and at the end of the period scores were tied at 3-3.

The third period was nothing short of intense. Both teams had plenty of chances, with the puck only being stopped by the iron, and both goal-tenders showing off their skills; Ryan Miller the veteran giving a master class to the somewhat younger Keith Kinkaid, but both matching one another on the highlight reel.
Adam Larsson had a mammoth hit on Jared McCann, and for all intents and purposes was legal, however McCann dropped to the ground visibly shaken, and the referees handed out a 5 minute interference penalty and a game misconduct. The fact alone of a 5 minute interference penalty was handed out when normally only 2 minutes, was a shock, but then to also receive a game misconduct when Larsson never left the ice nor hit McCann above the shoulders, is a controversial call.
As such, the Devils went on to kill a 5 minute penalty in spectacular fashion. This resulted in the game going to overtime, a position the Devils are becoming familiar with, especially with the new 3 on 3 overtime rules.

The Devils had luck on their side when the referees called an interference penalty against the Canucks during 3 on 3 overtime, which lead to an amazing set up for Kyle Palmieri to be the home town hero and score the overtime winner.
The Devils are now 3-0 in overtime and 2-1 shoot-out winners; a record that is a more pleasing sight to Devils fans than previous seasons, and whilst the Devils aren’t winning too many games in regulation, they are living up to their motto to never quit and are finding ways to win.

The Devils face the St. Louis Blues next to end their home stand, before venturing to Chicago, then returning to New Jersey to face the Penguins, before heading off on their somewhat regular early-season west coast road trip, which the Devils have also struggled with the last couple of seasons, and again will provide a good test for this new team.

The Columbus Blue Rangers

The Devils came in to the match up with the (Columbus) Blue Jackets on a 4 game win streak, the Blue Jackets having a horrible start to the season but finally getting their first win. What also made this an interesting match-up is a meeting with an old foe: John Tortorella.

John Tortorella is well known to Devils fans due to being the head coach of the New York Rangers for several years. Even most hockey fans outside of that rivalry are aware of him as a coach and person, especially due to his antics; case in point his suspension during his reign in Vancouver due to going in to Calgary’s locker room.

From the outset of the game, the Devils continued their dominating style of play which is becoming prevalent under new head coach John Hynes. Considering their bad start to the season, the Blue Jackets matched the Devils at every turn and shot. It was going to be one of those games of whoever scored first would win the game.

Early in the game and even up until the middle of the second period the Devils were definitely the dominating team, however the tide slowly started to turn. The Blue Jackets began to mount a counter offensive and began getting opportunities.
Through 50 minutes of play the Devils had their chances but then the Blue Jackets struck first, and from there it seemed to fall apart for the Devils which in quick succession suddenly became a 3-0 deficit.
With little time remaining the Devils feel short 3-1 at the end with a consolation goal by Kyle Palmieri on a power play goal with an empty net.

Whilst it was a tough loss considering how the Devils played for 50 minutes, it wasn’t a 60 minute game. John Hynes from early on with the Devils has said repeatedly a team needs to play 60 minutes and the result was evidence that it did not occur this game. That will happen from time to time and they can’t win every game, so on to the next one against the Flyers.

Before we go there however, there were a few moments from the game that caught my attention.
John Tortorella’s influence as a coach was quite evident early in the game. His players have a certain style when playing under him. Let’s just call this the Rangers style. For example, Sergei Bobrovsky put his arm out to slow a Devils player. Jack Johnson lashed out after the play had stopped. A dirty style of play, and possibly a continued rivalry from his time as the Rangers coach.
Considering the Devils will be playing the Blue Jackets a total of four more times this season, it will be interesting to see if this style continues.

The Devils next travelled to Philadelphia and the game began similarly to the Blue Jackets game; it appeared another stressful evening was in the books (well day time for me).

The Flyers struck first with only a few minutes left in the second period and it definitely send like another tough night.
This feeling was short lived however when Travis Zajac came up big with a power play goal late in the second to tie the game and the teams headed to second intermission tied.

The Devils’ “Relentless” motto kicked in to high gear in the third period where another two goals were scored, the Devils locked down the zones, and resumed their dominating play they’ve been adopting this season.

The Flyers pushed one last time at the end when the Devils gifted them a power play however not only did the Devils kill it off, Andy Greene the great captain scored a goal of the year candidate (in my biased opinion, see highlights below) on a clearing shot during the Flyers power play from behind the goal line – a 200 foot shot. A sight to behold indeed.

With that, the Devils win 4-1 and had back home in a wild card spot against another division rival, the New York Islanders on Halloween.

I mention the wild card spot even though it’s still very early on the season (only ten games played) just due to the fact the Devils have struggled at the start of the season the past couple of years and whatever points and position they can get early on will help them down the stretch towards playoffs.

I’m not suggesting the Devils are a guaranteed playoff team, especially after such a turnover of front office staff and players, but it’s good to see them playing with more determination and passion than what we as fans have been seeing in more recent years.

The new (relentless) Devils

It’s another season for the New Jersey Devils and so it’s another long trek through what most likely will be a tough season.

The difficulty is a little different this year. Last year the Devils struggled with aging players and injuries whereas this year the Devils have a new general manager (Ray Shero) who cleaned out the majority of staff and a lot of players fans wanted to see gone. There is a new coach (John Hynes) who brought in new assistant coaches and with a new system I expected an adjustment period, and that’s exactly what Devils fans are seeing.

The Devils are now 0-3-1 after their first four games, which is the same start as the 2001-02 season; is this an omen where Devils can be hopeful? Only time will tell, however from watching all but the Nashville Predators (the Devils opened back to back with the Winnipeg Jets and Washington Capitals, played the San Jose Sharks yesterday), there’s a slow and steady improvement.

The (San Jose) Sharks were coming in to New Jersey undefeated and an exceptional start of the season by their goaltender Martin Jones. The Sharks scored in the first two minutes against Cory Schneider (who had his first game back after a few days off with his new baby) however the Devils slowly increased their performance, matching the Sharks up and down the ice.

Compared to their first two games, this Devils team was looking much improved; defense was solid, anticipating the puck, and blocking lanes. Forwards were getting chances and the puck was moving well up the ice. Again, the only Devils goal came on a powerplay, with 5-on-5 goals still being scarce.

The Devils scored with 3:38 left in the third period thanks to a (Adam) Henrique deflection and fans were given display to the new 3-on-3 overtime, where there was a lot of back and forth, showcasing some exciting hockey.

Unfortunately the Devils lost in the shootout (leftover from the last couple of years of failed shootout records) but it meant the Devils now have a point in the standings and broke their regulation loss streak.

There were some bright spots from the Sharks game: Lee Stempniak and Adam Henrique played well, Cory Schneider settled in and was very good with positioning, and overall the team is gradually moving towards John Hynes’ system of speed; the Devils team is definitely playing a faster, more agile style game and there will be an adjustment period, however I believe the future could be promising if the improvement over the first four games is anything to go by.

Overall, the season may be a long one for us Devils fans, however I for one will be watching the Devils games in hope that they continually buy in to the new system and the 2001-02 starting statistics are an omen worth believing in, because let’s go Devils in the 2015-16 season!