Numbers Game: A Deal With the Devils

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Scott Cullen
2/5/2010 9:52:48 AM
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Once it became apparent that Ilya Kovalchuk wouldn't be staying in Atlanta for the rest of this season, the bidding obviously got very serious, very quickly for one of the game's premier goal-scoring talents.

Numbers Game looks at the Devils' deal for Kovalchuk.

The New Jersey Devils Get: LW Ilya Kovalchuk, D Anssi Salmela and a second-round pick.

Kovalchuk, 26, has gone five seasons in a row with at least 40 goals and, with 31 through 49 games this season, is on pace for a sixth consecutive season in that rare offensive air.

Without question, Ilya Kovalchuk is a dynamic offensive player, one that will add a completely new dimension to the New Jersey Devils and lift the production of teammates in the process.

At the same time, Kovalchuk has always been a minus player, with this season's plus-1 rating representing a highwater mark if he were to finish the season at that number.  Perhaps moving to a Devils team that is already strong defensively will provide the right kind of support for Kovalchuk, so that coach Jacques Lemaire can, if not overlook then at least, come to grips with Kovalchuk's defensive shortcomings.

Kovalchuk is a cap hit of a little less than $6.4-million, pro-rated over the rest of this season and will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer.  By turning down a reported 12-year, $101-million offer from the Thrashers, Kovalchuk is taking a risk.  If he doesn't perform well in the playoffs with the Devils this year, it's hard to imagine another team trumping that kind of financial commitment.  Even if Kovalchuk is a force down the stretch and throughout the playoffs, it may be difficult to find another team willing to make that kind of lucrative offer.

From the Devils' perspective, they've been enjoying a strong season, but recognized that they may not have the firepower to match up with other top contenders in the Eastern Conference.  By adding Kovalchuk, it allows the Devils to go with two tremendous offensive lines, keeping Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner together, while a second line could consist of Kovalchuk, Dainius Zubrus and Brian Rolston in the short-term, with Patrik Elias and David Clarkson also potential linemates once they get healthy.

Suddenly, the Devils could have a potent offensive attack, unlike what is typically expected of the button-down Devils and there is no doubt that Kovalchuk's presence will help the offensive production of both his linemates -- Zubrus and Elias could be prime beneficiaries -- but if Kovalchuk starts attracting opponents' top defensive pairings, then the Parise line will be even more dangerous.

Salmela, 25, was signed by the Devils out of Finland in 2008 and was traded to the Thrashers last spring.  In part-time duty with Atlanta this season, Salmela hasn't been a liability, but he's been protected, playing a little over 13 minutes in the 29 games he's played.  He'll be needed for a similar depth role in New Jersey.

Salmela is under contract through next season, at a cap hit of $612,500, before becoming a restricted free agent in the summer of 2011; a reasonably-priced seventh defenceman.

With Oduya gone, the Devils may need to add a veteran defenceman for their third pairing, unless they are comfortable increasing the role of a young blueliner like Mark Fraser or a prospect like Matt Corrente.

The Atlanta Thrashers Get: RW Niclas Bergfors, D Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, a first-round pick and second-round pick.

Bergfors is a 22-year-old with whom the Devils were very patient as they groomed him for four seasons in the American Hockey League after drafting him in the first round in 2005. 

Early this season, Bergfors was making that patience pay off, as the rookie had 26 points in 39 games through the end of December.  However, as the Devils got healthier up front, Bergfors lost his spot among the top six forwards and both his ice time and production decreased.  Playing less than 13 minutes per game in January, Bergfors managed just one assist and a minus-4 rating in 14 games, giving him 27 points (including 13 on the power play) and a minus-7 rating in 54 games with the Devils.

In Atlanta, Bergfors will surely get a chance to fulfill a top-six role as the Thrashers will need all hands on deck to try and make up for the offence they lose with Kovalchuk's departure.

Bergfors will be a restricted free agent in the summer, due a raise on his $500,000 salary; by how much depends on how productive he is over the rest of the season.  Long-term, it's not unreasonable to think that Bergfors could be an annual 20-goal scorer in Atlanta, but that will depend on the opportunities he's presented and what kind of chemistry he may find with his new linemates.

Oduya, 28, had been an underrated defenceman for the last two seasons, compiling 55 points and a plus-48 rating combined.  After signing a new contract, however, Oduya has not been as productive, putting up just four points and a plus-2 rating in 40 games, though he was averaging a career-high 21:11 of ice time per game.

Signed for two more seasons, at a cap hit of $3.5-million, Oduya will fit into the Thrashers' top four on defence, presuming that free-agent-to-be Pavel Kubina is not re-signed.  By no means is he flashy, but Oduya does provide safe and sound defensive play and the Thrashers could certainly use that.

Cormier has been in the headlines lately, but for the wrong reasons, after he was suspended for the remainder of the year after a vicious elbow to the head of defenceman Mikael Tam in a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Game last month.

19-year-old Cormier has 31 points and a plus-10 rating in 31 QMJHL games this season, so his offensive upside is limited, but he does play the game on the edge and that figures to earn him a chance in the NHL eventually.  Whether he makes it as a third-line or fourth-line forward will depend on how he can come back from this suspension and the kind of opportunities that the Thrashers afford him.

Getting New Jersey's first-round pick isn't quite as appealing as a first-round pick sounds, since it figures to be in the latter stages of the round, a point at which a top-six forward or top-four defenceman comes in fewer than 20% of the selections.  The Thrashers theoretically undermined that acquisition, however, by agreeing to flip-flop second-round picks with the Devils, a move that figures to improve New Jersey's second-round slot by about 20 picks.

Interestingly enough, though, there has historically been little difference between the players chosen in the 36-40 range as opposed to the 56-60 range over the last decade, with the later range actually providing more top-six forward, top-four defence calibre players.  How those second-round picks play out, then, is really a matter of how well these teams do at the draft table and the Thrashers don't need to take a hit for including this facet of the trade in order to make the deal happen.

With Kovalchuk gone, the Thrashers are going to need their young forwards to rise to the challenge.  That means Bergfors, Evander Kane and Bryan Little should all see power play time and have a chance to be productive players for the rest of this season, but with unproven talent comes inconsistency and lowered expectations, so players that have benefitted on the Atlanta power play this season, like defenceman Tobias Enstrom, Nik Antropov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Maxim Afinogenov, the assists won't come so easily without Kovalchuk there to pull the trigger.

Atlanta is only three points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with a game at hand, so it's understandable that they didn't want to make this deal all about prospects, but they are going to have to -- borrowing a hockey-term -- change on the fly, going from a freewheeling offence to a more responsible all-around team, hoping that will be enough to sneak into the postseason.

Whether they make the playoffs or not, the Thrashers will at least have three assets that they can put towards the perpetual rebuilding plan that is in place in Atlanta, which is more than the zero they would have received this summer had they allowed Ilya Kovalchuk to walk in free agency.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.
Kovalchuk celebrates (Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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