The NHL is a less electrifying place today after the news came down that New Jersey Devils RW Ilya Kovalchuk was retiring from the top hockey league on the planet.
Needless to say, I was simply stunned when I refreshed Twitter for the first time in a little while. I was stunned in the sense of loss. Kovalchuk has been an elite offensive force in the NHL ever since he stepped foot in the NHL. Just how elite has he been? The only contemporary he has is Pavel Bure, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year. Yes, that’s how good Kovalchuk is.
Since he became a star in the NHL – which was early, he scored 59 goals before his 20th birthday – Kovalchuk has been one of the few players who made hockey must-see TV every time he was one the ice. There are a plethora of YouTube videos out there to peruse, my favorite is this Top 10 from his Atlanta Thrashers days.
You can see just how special his skating, stick-handling and especially his shooting skills really were.
Determining a player’s value, at the end of the day, boils down to how good (in whatever criteria you use) he was relative to his peers. Ilya Kovalchuk managed a 40 goal season on six separate occasions. Not only did he do it six times, he did it six times before the age of 30. This puts him in very, very selective company when looking at the pantheon of great goal scorers. It gets even more selective when you look at players who scored 400 goals by the age of 30. We’re talking Gordie Howe territory.
But a lot of those names are in the past, Wayne Gretzky was scoring goals on netminders who looked like they had magazines strapped to their pads. Where does he stand in today’s game?
Well, Kovalchuk had more 30 goal, 70 point, 250 shot seasons before the age of 30 than anyone since he broke into the NHL. In fact, he had as many such seasons as Jarome Iginla and Marian Gaborik did in their 18-30 seasons combined. Kovalchuk was, pure and simple, one of the top offensive talents to lace up a pair of skates in the last 20-odd seasons.
Kovalchuk is one of the most prolific scorers ever and he’s one of the top players of the last 20-something years. But how has he done since the last lockout and new rules were installed? The only player with more 30 goal seasons in recent times is Alex Ovechkin and that’s really not much to be ashamed about.
The curious thing about this whole Kovalchuk thing is that in reality, he probably under-performed as an NHLer. Kovalchuk, for the bulk of his career, was stuck in the hockey wasteland known as the Atlanta Thrashers. This was a team that made the playoffs once in its entire existence, and was swept in four games the year they did make it. There were a couple of good players that came and went like Marc Savard and Marian Hossa for three years, but for the majority of his time there, it was him and a pile of scrubs. This meant that he was constantly drawing the top players of the other team and was playing with line-mates that would probably be third line players anywhere else. Despite this, Kovalchuk led the NHL in goals among any player of any age while he was a Thrasher. I can’t exclaim how exceptional that is. He was playing alongside replacement players and drawing top competition and led the NHL in goals. Imagine if it was he and not Hossa that got to go to the Ottawa Senators during their heyday. He might have retired by the age of 30 with 500 goals.
All these comparisons aside, you can’t really explain what it was like to watch him. The feeling I got watching him play hockey was the same feeling I had as a kid watching Pavel Bure play hockey. Every time he touched the puck you would tap your friend and say “watch this.” It seemed, more often than not, it resulted in a snapshot under the crossbar.
The NHL lost a great talent today. Put the personal feelings of overpaid salary, lost draft pick or whatever else you might hold against him. Pure and simple, he’s one of the top goal scorers you will ever see in your lifetime.