Ilya Kovalchuk Should Be the Next New Jersey Devils Captain

By Mark Donatiello

Ilya Kovalchuk is a large part of  the future of the New Jersey Devils, like it or not.  Signed for the rest of his foreseeable career, Kovalchuk is slated to grow into the face of the franchise as players like Patrik Elias and Martin Brodeur step aside in the coming years.  With so much invested in Ilya Kovalchuk, the Devils are best served to name him captain.  The organization needs to support Ilya Kovalchuk as its leader, and the locker room needs to recover from the loss of Zach Parise.  Ilya Kovalchuk is a natural leader, a respected veteran presence, and the most dynamic player on the roster.

When Parise was lost for the 2010-11 season, Ilya Kovalchuk emerged as the leader of the New Jersey Devils.  His play on the ice carried the team in the second half of the season, nearly completing an improbable push into the playoffs.  When everything clicks, Ilya Kovalchuk plays with a balance of emotion and poise that permeates through a roster.  Surrounded by youth on the last-placed team in the conference, Kovalchuk led the Devils through a thrilling second-half push during a lost season.  New Jersey’s NHL-best record in the second half of the season was nearly enough to undo the damage done by the John MacLean coaching experiment.

The 2010-11 season proved that Ilya Kovalchuk is capable of leading the New Jersey Devils successfully.

When the Devils finally replaced an inexperienced MacLean with Jacques Lemaire, Ilya Kovalchuk sought to learn as much as possible from the veteran coach.  Kovalchuk became a two-way player, a hard worker, and sought to clear his reputation as merely a sniper.  He became a team player, and the New Jersey Devils rallied as a result.  Kovalchuk was the player who asked questions and got better, but never lost his ability to score a breakaway goal to beat, say, the New York Rangers 1 – 0.  Ilya Kovalchuk wants to be the man, loves the spotlight, and wants to continually get better.  His work ethic and on-ice performance are ideal in a captain.

Ilya Kovalchuk has the desire to lead, the desire to constantly improve, and the ability to lead by example.  Few players represent such a versatile leadership package.

Still, Ilya Kovalchuk is a somewhat polarizing figure on the New Jersey Devils roster.  Many dissenters question his consistency.  When Kovy comes across the side boards and blindly centers a tailor-made turnover, it’s frustrating to watch.  He’s not the type of player to grind on the forecheck like Zach Parise used to do as captain.  Many accuse Ilya Kovalchuk of derailing a highly successful season when he was acquired at the trade deadline in 2009, and failing to live up to his expensive contract as a Devil.

However, in Kovy’s defense, his six points in five games during the 2009 playoffs prove he didn’t derail anything.  In fact, his 25 points in 28 postseason games with the Devils point to clutch play, despite battling injury for most of last year’s Stanley Cup run.  Additionally, it’s painful to even wonder where the New Jersey Devils would have been without Kovalchuk the past two seasons.  This is his team.  Ilya Kovalchuk is by far the most talented skater New Jersey has.  He wants to stay and succeed in New Jersey, but most importantly, he wants to lead.

The Devils don’t have many options for captain to begin with.  Bryce Salvador is a decent option as a veteran leader, but his role in what could be an injury-riddled, ten-man defensive rotation isn’t defined clearly enough.  Salvador averages considerably less time on the ice than Kovalchuk and his minutes are erratic.  When the game is on the line, nobody looks to Salvador to make a play or inspire the team, but all eyes are clearly on Ilya Kovalchuk.  Both have a presence, both want to be Devils, but only Kovalchuk has the ability and presence to positively impact both the outcome of games and the feeling in the locker room.

Patrik Elias doesn’t want to be captain, Travis Zajac missed most of the past season to injury, and the rest of the Devils roster is too inexperienced.  Ilya Kovalchuk is the clear choice, unless the Devils name someone else captain in an effort to cultivate Lou Lamoriello’s leadership by committee mentality.

The Devils might as well name Ilya Kovalchuk captain.  If Ilya Kovalchuk can bottle some of 2011’s second-half success, the New Jersey Devils can avoid taking a step back after a poor offseason.  Like it or not, this is Kovy’s team.  The Devils will go as Ilya Kovalchuk goes, and naming Kovy captain can only help him lead the New Jersey Devils to success.

If you’ve ever been at the Prudential Center down by a goal as Kovalchuk skates through the zone, you know how that Kovy-inspired hope and anticipation feels.  He is exactly what the New Jersey Devils need in a leader, and exactly what the Devils need to re-energize the franchise.

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