Ilya Kovalchuk made a series of controversial comments this week about wanting to stay in Russia with SKA St. Petersburg for at least the remainder of the season, lamenting that he was legally unable to do so. Kovalchuk is currently the captain of his KHL team, and is begrudgingly slated to return to the New Jersey Devils due to contractual obligations. While it is nice to see Kovalchuk so wrapped up in his leadership role abroad, Kovy’s comments were a direct insult to his teammates and his organization in the NHL.
Before last season, I was torn as to whether or not Kovalchuk would be a suitable captain of the Devils. He seemed prone to stretches of lazy play while hunting for opportunities to score. However, Kovalchuk is also capable of lighting the Devils on fire, using his exceptional abilities to motivate teammates by example. He has carried the team before with intensity and clutch scoring. Though his effort levels seem inconsistent at times, Ilya Kovalchuk could still have been an ideal captain for the New Jersey Devils this season.
With two-way, high-effort, former captain Zach Parise departing through free agency after just one season, the next captain of the New Jersey Devils is pivotal to the future of the franchise. The Devils need to find a balance between capturing the momentum of the Stanley Cup run with Parise as captain and moving forward as a franchise. The next captain of the New Jersey Devils cannot be Ilya Kovalchuk after his recent string of emotional comments that proved his heart is not with the Devils – much like Parise’s wasn’t.
If he had the choice, Kovalchuk would have gone the way of Parise and left the Devils without a backup plan. Kovy remaining in Russia, even if only for the rest of the season, would have been an incredible betrayal. Dragged back by the terms of a transfer agreement, Kovalchuk cannot be given a leadership role on the team he was willing to abandon less than two weeks before the start of the season.
The problem with Kovalchuk’s declaration that his loyalties are not necessarily to the Devils (and if they are, it’s far from voluntary) is that there are few alternatives for the next captain of the Devils. Patrik Elias has been captain before, but is said to not enjoy the position. Adam Henrique is far too young, Travis Zajac missed most of last season, and few other candidates exist.
Before the season, I was sold on Ilya Kovalchuk taking over this team. I thought he was the best option to lead the Devils, and I thought the role of captain could inspire a more consistent energy level from Kovalchuk. After his comments this offseason regarding a desire to explore options to stay in the KHL and leave the Devils for at least this season, Bryce Salvador may be the best option to be the next captain of the New Jersey Devils. At least Salvador wants to be in New Jersey.