So, it turns out I was right.
Man, do I hate being right.
For the last few weeks now, all of the talk around the Bruins has been about whether or not Peter Chiarelli would make the big deal to bring in Ilya Kovalchuk as a puck panacea to cure all that ails the Bruins. Friend of 4SB Joe Gill at Boston Sports Then and Now maintained that the B’s needed to do whatever it took to land the dynamic left-winger in a Black and Gold sweater – even for only the final three months of the season. I, on the other hand, continued to state the obvious – this Bruins team is simply not good enough to win the Stanley Cup – and trading away key assets for a three-month dash to the seventh seed was not good business. Our differing opinions made for good discussion on the last two 4SB podcasts (Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. for all your Bruin cathartic needs) but I always felt that in the end Chiarelli was a smart man and would realize he was barely one player away from the playoffs, never mind hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in June.
If this was a math test, I would get an A because my answer was right. However, if Professor Leger checked my work, he would see that the chicken-scratch leading up to the correct answer of “No” does not compute. My contention all along is that Atlanta was going to bring back a treasure trove of talent in exchange for renting out the best player to ever wear the ugliest jersey in hockey. Kovalchuk is without question one of the five best players in the NHL.
If you total up all the goals scored since the 2001-02 season, Kovalchuk has the biggest piece of that pie with 328 scores. Not Crosby, not Ovechkin, instead it was a player playing in relative obscurity in Hotlanta, overshadowed by the Gold Club, Bad Newz Kennels and Waffle House.
Atlanta GM Don Wadell maintained all along that he was hoping to resign his franchise. Not his franchise player – his actual franchise. Make no mistake, Atlanta losing Kovalchuk is most likely the death blow for the Thrashers. No one cared about this team to begin with and with no discernible draw in the lineup, attendance is about to dip lower than your “Pants on the Ground”.
With the success of the Coyotes this season, the Thrash become contestant number one to be relocated in the next few years. Wadell came out yesterday afternoon and revealed that Kovalchuk turned down two deals from the club – a seven-year $70 million offer and a 12-year, $101 million offer – greasing the wheels for the eventual trade. That move signaled to the NHL franchises to make their best offer as the window for bargaining was closing.
The expectation was that Wadell was looking for a big-time deal to restock his club. Most media outlets figured the team acquiring Kovalchuk would have to relinquish two high-end players from its NHL roster, a big-time prospect and a first-round draft choice. That is a steep price to pay for a three-month rental, which is what Kovalchuk likely is. Atlanta wouldn’t allow teams to discuss an extension with Kovie before making a deal and there is no way he misses his chance at seeing what is on the market. Wadell not allowing teams to talk contract with Kovie before making a deal may have lessened the haul brought back, but it also sped up the negotiations.
So, last night right around the time the puck dropped between the B’s and Canadiens at the Garden, word started filtering out that the Devils were the team which landed the star winger. The Devils! The team that is known for scoffing at the idea of excessive offense and seems to almost tether its players to the defensive zone went out and acquired the biggest fish on the market.
Freakin’ Lou Lamoriello. The long-time mastermind of the Devils franchise swooped in and stole Kovalchuk out from under the nose of the frequently-mentioned frontrunners. Instead of locking up a Stanley Cup berth for San Jose or Chicago or vaulting the Bruins or Flyers past the seven other teams vying for the final playoff spots, Kovalchuk will take his pinpoint shot to the Jersey Turnpike and hope to push the Devils past the defending champion Penguins and the probable heir to the throne Capitals.
So who did New Jersey have to sacrifice to land Kovalchuk? Has to be a big package, right? It must have been tough for the Devils to part with Travis Zajac, the young top-line center who was the centerpiece of the deal … wait … you’re saying they didn’t have to trade him? Man, they really traded Paul Martin, the superb defenseman who is recovering from a broken forearm … huh … he wasn’t sent packing? Who did New Jersey have to include, Bon Jovi? You can’t acquire Ilya Kovalchuk for nothing, can you?!?!?!
(Scans transaction list ….)
Looks like you can.
Here is the final deal. New Jersey acquires Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier, and a first-round draft pick. The two sides also switched second round picks. Salmela is a throw-in, a former Devils player to begin with who may replace Oduya on the blue line and helps keep salary in line. So in essence, here is what was required to land a game-changing player, one of the five best in the world at what he does:
Johnny Oduya: The 28-year old Swede is a reliable defenseman. In his first three seasons he played 75 or more games in each, with two seasons of a +/- over 20. He is not a big point producer, but had 20 and 22 assists in each of his last two seasons. This year his offensive production is down, but he is a player who you can put on the ice to handle skilled players. A very nice player to have on your team.
Niclas Bergfors: Currently fifth among NHL rookies in scoring with 13G-14A-27P, Bergfors was a first-round choice of the Devils in 2005. Just 22 years old, the Swede could blossom into a competent right-winger, good for 25-30 goals a season. Eight of his 13 goals have come on the power play in addition to five assists so he is valuable on special teams. Still, he is not a world-class talent.
Patrice Cormier: His name has been in the news a lot lately, and not for his superb talent. Drafted 54th overall by the Devils in 2008, Cormier captained the Canadian team at the 2010 World Junior Championships which was upset by Team USA in the final, breaking his country’s heart. Last month, he was suspended from his major junior league for the season for a vicious elbow on an unsuspecting player. He pretty much hopped over the boards and streamlined Mikael Tam in a premeditated way, in a nasty incident. Cormier’s reputation has taken a hit, but he is a big, skilled winger who could overcome this situation and turn into a nice little NHL power forward.
First Round Pick: These are always nice, but if the Devils end up parading around Lord Stanley, it is the last pick of the first round. Maybe you get Mike Richards at that spot or maybe you pick up Lars Johnson. You sure as heck don’t get another Kovalchuk.
To recap, Atlanta picked up a “very nice player”, someone who could “blossom”, a vilified player who may turn into a “nice little power forward”, and a crapshoot first rounder. That isn’t a bad return on Dion Phaneuf or someone like Jason Allison. Hell, the Bruins apparently made a better deal when they panicked into trading Joe Thornton a few years ago.
To quote The Miz, “Really? That’s all? Really?”
Let’s look at this in terms of the Bruins. Now we know what Atlanta settled for – and trust me, they settled – what would a possible deal from the Bruins have consisted of? Speculation around the NHL is that the B’s did make an offer and were in on the talks. However, they were clearly not as aggressive as the Devils. Here is what I can come up with as a possible deal the Bruins could have offered that is similar – if not better – than what New Jersey won with.
Blake Wheeler, Johnny Boychuk, Zach Hamill and Boston’s own first rounder this season.
The deal is about the same on the money level, in fact it is even a little better for the Thrashers. Oduya is signed for three more years while Wheeler and Boychuk are restricted free agents after this season. But in terms of talent, the B’s offer includes a young top-six forward, a younger and more skilled defenseman, a lesser prospect who is still a former first-round pick and a probable higher choice in this year’s draft. If Atlanta was sticking on receiving a player under contract for a long period of time, Dennis Wideman could be inserted for Boychuk as the contract length and terms are close.
The crazy thing is that all along, people who cover the Bruins were name dropping Toronto’s 1st rounder, David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Tuukka Rask as the names needed to land Kovalchuk. And that is where Joe Gill and I differed. I was not interested in dealing away those three guys for a three-month rental. If Kovie could be extended, that was a different thing. However, if you told me that for the price of Wheeler, Boychuk, Hamill and a first rounder (of which the B’s have four over the next two years) the Bruins could have landed him, I would have been interested in what you were saying.
The fact that the Devils landed Kovie for what they did means a few things. First, it means the offers from other teams were a lot less than they would have been if they had a chance to talk extension. Secondly, it means Lou Lamariello is ready to open up his game a little bit with Kovalchuk, Zajac and Zach Parise. Yikes. Thirdly, it means Peter Chiarelli may actually be taking the sane approach to this.
Going back to the starting point of the whole “Should the Bruins trade for Kovalchuk” debate, this author’s prime point was that the Bruins just aren’t that good this year. Would an offensive talent like Kovalchuk have made a difference last night against the Habs? Possibly. However, at the end of the day, I don’t think he would have made that much of a difference. Does Kovalchuk get the Bruins into the playoffs? Most likely. Does he win them the Stanley Cup? No.
I think too many people around Boston are forgetting that the NHL playoffs are different than any other sport. You need to win 16 games to hoist the Cup. Sure that is the same as basketball, but except for the Celtics in 2008 who made it extremely difficult to get to the finals, most NBA champs breeze through the first few rounds. In the NHL, a team has to be great for two months to win the championship. In baseball, you need two and a half good weeks. In football, three games can win you a title. In baseball and football, so few teams make the playoffs that it really is a badge of honor to be one of the four or six at the end of the year.
In the NHL, more than half the teams are in the playoffs at the end of the season. Unless you win the Cup, there is no difference between 2nd or 30th. In this town, as spoiled as the fans are, very few people accept a mediocre season. There is nothing wrong with that. But, there are people paid to be realists and to make the best decisions for the franchise. While Peter Chiarelli has pretty much made his own bed in this case by trading Phil Kessel and signing lots of long-term contracts, he is the one that has to lie in it. He does not have the cache or trust that Theo Epstein or The Hooded One have. The guess here is that he fully intended to make a big deal this year if his team was where it was last year. He loaded up the assets and if his team was where the Devils are, he would have made a big splash.
Unfortunately, injuries and a return to Earth for players who had career years in 08-09 have halted this team at the moment. It is hard to say just how good this squad would have been if Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and Tim Thomas were healthy all year.
This is what we do know. The Bruins have 56 points through 55 games. That ranks them 12th in the Eastern Conference, right behind Atlanta. The B’s are still just three points out of eighth place and four away from sixth place with games in hand on all the teams ahead of them. One has to assume the Thrashers will fade quietly after this deal. Other teams ahead of Boston include Florida and Tampa Bay – not exactly power houses. The Rangers will be a tough team to pass as will Philly and Montreal. The big number is 10. Of the Bruins’ last 27 games, 10 come against teams currently between 6th and 12th in the conference. After Saturday’s game against Vancouver, only one other game left on the schedule is outside the conference. This team has
shown signs of life lately, with 40+ shots in its last two games. The power play has been connecting at a better clip and players like Sturm and Savard should be regaining their full skating legs after returning from injuries. Strange as it sounds, this team could compete for the playoffs on its own merit, without outside help if they can flip that switch from competing to converting.
Until that moment, however, we are more likely to see a minor deal to bring in someone like Medford native, Keith Tkachuk than a game-changer.
On the plus side, we are getting closer and closer to Claude Julien going all Jim Mora on Kevin Paul Dupont at some point …
“Playoffs? Playoffs! We’d be lucky to win another game! Playoffs…”