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Jim Cerny's Rink Rap


February 5, 2010 11:43 AM

Kovie Upstages Ovie

Kovie2.jpgUsually when Alex Ovechkin comes to town---any hockey town really, but in particular New York City, where he just loves to play and torment the Rangers and their fans---he seizes all of the attention and focus.

But not yesterday, however.

Oh, Ovechkin was on Broadway alright last night, but the spotlight instead was on his fellow countryman, Ilya Kovalchuk, who was nowhere near Madison Square Garden.

Let's just say it's the night Kovie upstaged Ovie.

Even before the game between the Rangers and Capitals started, members of the media---and there were more than the norm at last night's game what with Ovechkin and the Caps looking for a 12th straight win and Olli Jokinen set to make his home-ice debut for the Rangers---huddled in groups to discuss rumors that Kovalchuk was soon to be traded.

Just 24 hours prior Thrashers GM Don Waddell had released information that Kovie rejected a pair of mega-deals---$101 million over 12 years, $70 mill over seven years---and was opting to head to UFA status this summer. As a result, Waddell announced that Kovie would be traded.

But to whom? And how soon?

Speculation flew around the press room at The Garden as reporters checked in with sources, shared what they had heard, and probably made up a few rumors, as well. I made a note to myself that it just seemed funny there was little to no chatter about the upcoming game at MSG, and Kovie's name was mentioned a heckuva' lot more than Ovie's.

What followed was one wild night, just a great fun night to be a hockey reporter. The Rangers and Caps played an exciting seesaw contest where goals and the power play ruled the day in a 6-5 Washington victory.

Ovechkin's brilliance was on full display as he notched two goals---including the hugely important one with 8.5 seconds to go in the second period that cut the Caps' deficit to one---and an assist. Nicklas Backstrom put forth a five-point effort. Vinny Prospal tied a career high with four points. Jokinen scored his first goal as a Ranger in a two-point effort. Four power play goals for the Rangers, three for Washington. Great stuff.

But as Ovechkin was throwing himself into a wild celebration over his team's third-period comeback and 12th consecutive victory, reporters were busy verifying web reports and rumors that Kovalchuk had been traded to the New Jersey Devils.

Ovie on the grand New York stage---even scoring his 500th career point (in only his 373rd game, I might add) turning in another virtuoso performance, and upstaged by Kovie.

"I wish him good luck," Ovechkin said to nhl.com's Dan Rosen after the game. "He's a good friend of mine and a great player. It was a big trade."

OK, Ovechkin lost the spotlight last night. And as far as big trades go, this one is the biggest of the season, certainly trumping the recent ones that saw the Rangers land Jokinen and the Maple Leafs acquire Dion Phaneuf and J-S Giguere.

It is the biggest deal of the season because it involves a mega-superstar player going to a legit Stanley Cup contender. Plus it may also be a fatal blow to the Thrashers franchise in Atlanta, where Waddell noted yesterday, "we're struggling with attendence as it is."

I understand Waddell had to trade Kovalchuk. Waddell tried his damndest to ink Kovie with UFA status looming over the contract talks. When Kovie rejected Atlanta's latest offers, he had to be dealt. The Thrashers had to receive something for him as opposed to just letting him walk on July 1.

But did Waddell have to rush into making this trade as he did yesterday? I understand, as Bob McKenzie says over at TSN, that Waddell has studied the market and knows it much better than I. But what did he have to lose by seeing teams react to the news from Wednesday that Kovie indeed was going to be traded?

So the Thrashers get Johnny Oduya---a solid defenseman, but no star, who will be tested as to how good he really is now that he is out of New Jersey's defensemen-friendly system. And they get winger Niclas Bergfors, perhaps a top-six forward, a player who started very strong in this, his rookie, season, but who fell out of favor with Jacques Lemaire. And they get prospect Patrice Cormier, suspended the rest of the year by the QMJHL, but considered a future third liner in the NHL one day. And the Thrashers land New Jersey's late first round pick, while also swapping second rounders and sending Anssi Salmela to the Devils, as well.

That is not an overwhelming package. I know Waddell was not going to win this trade no matter whom he acquired. You never do when you are forced to deal a superstar, especially one whom the receiving team does not know if they can sign to a long-term deal. But there was not a better offer out there, or wouldn't have been in the coming days?

As for the Devils, solid smart move by the master, Lou Lamoriello. I personally do not believe that Kovalchuk will sign with New Jersey after July 1---that is just speculative on my part---but for the here and now Lamoriello did not give up assets he can not replace from within anyway, and he received a superstar player to jolt his team's offense for the stretch run and post-season. Not too dissimilar to his acquisition of Alexander Mogilny in 2000, a move that helped spark another Stanley Cup run in New Jersey.

"What he brings, he can do things a lot of people can't do," Lamoriello said of Kovalchuk in typical understated manner.

Kovie is sitting at 31 goals and 58 points in 49 games this season. He has 328 career goals already, and has strung together seven straight seasons of 30 or more goals. Twice he has scored 52 goals.

For a team that is in the bottom third of scoring in the league, this is an insane offensive boost for the Devils. How about a power play in a tight playoff game that can feature both Kovalchuk and fellow sniper Zach Parise? And if Patrick Elias can get healthy, add him to the mix, too. Not too shabby.

"We felt Kovalchuk was a player who could come and fill the need that we felt we had for an explosive scorer and someone who could add a different dimension to our power play with the type of shot," Lamoriello said. "Then it was just the case of trying to make it work somehow where we could not sacrifice tomorrow."

Will Kovalchuk chafe under Lemaire's preferred style of play as Marian Gaborik often did in Minnesota under Lemaire's watch? Will Lemaire allow Kovalchuk the freedom he so craves in the offensive end? Will we find out how badly Kovalchuk really wants to win now that he finally is on a team with legit aspirations to do so?

"[New Jersey] is a good team and it's a great chance to play in the playoffs and go far in the playoffs," Kovalchuk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It's sad at the same time because now -- I can say it -- I've been a Thrasher for eight years. I'm appreciative of everything, the organization and the fans."

Sad day for the Thrashers and their fans. Exhilerating deal for the Devils and theirs. And just plain fun from an NHL reporter's---or fan's---perspective.

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