There’s no denying the New Jersey Devils completely collapsed when Martin Brodeur went down. The Devils went on a near-historic losing streak without Brodeur, falling from their comfortable position atop the Eastern Conference all the way out of the top eight. With Brodeur back, however, things were looking up for New Jersey … until Ilya Kovalchuk injured his shoulder in a win on Saturday.
Kovalchuk regularly contributes extended minutes while double-shifting as the most dynamic offensive weapon the Devils have. Kovy runs the point on the power play, and his shot is unquestionably the biggest scoring threat New Jersey has.
Since emerging as a two-way player with incomparable stamina, Kovalchuk has cemented himself as an irreplaceable cog in the Devils lineup and is perhaps more difficult to replace than Brodeur, given all he does.
With Lou Lamoriello suggesting Kovalchuk could miss the next 2-4 weeks, is this injury more devastating to the Devils than Brodeur’s?
Brodeur was conceding a considerable number of starts to Johan Hedberg at the time of his injury. Arguably the front-end of what amounts to a platoon, Brodeur actually had a capable backup with better statistics (in fewer starts) last season. Hedberg fell apart and the defense in front of him collapsed, but Moose was the obvious answer to Brodeur’s injury. For Kovalchuk, no player exists to even begin to fill his shoes.
Kovalchuk is a machine. He puts together quality minutes and never succumbs to fatigue, despite finding himself on the full two minutes of every power play and double-shifting through every close game. When the Devils are down a goal, Kovalchuk is the go-to forward that the Devils lean on to find a way. His presence alone opens up the rest of the Devils’ offense as defenses are forced to key on the 240-pound “bear”.
From a structural standpoint, the Devils are able to float a mediocre top line because Kovalchuk presents such a matchup nightmare for other teams. He has the size and speed to beat defenders on his own, he can finish on the breakaway, he can snipe from anywhere on the ice, and his one-timer is lethal.
The Devils’ top line has been Kovalchuk, a random center (currently the emerging Andrei Loktionov), and the remaining rotational winger that isn’t seeing minutes on the second line. Without Kovy, the second line is clearly the Devils’ best, and the depth that characterizes much of their success is lost.
Beyond his value as a scorer, Kovalchuk brings intangibles and effort. His minutes will be impossible to replace, his presence as a scoring threat will be lost completely, but his leadership and effort as a two-way skater could be missed the most.
When Brodeur went down, the Devils failed to respond, but had a backup plan. In the case of Kovalchuk’s injury, there is none. As such, the loss of Kovalchuk over the next month could prove to be even worse than Brodeur’s stint on IR.
We’ll find out if the Devils have any intestinal fortitude on Monday when they face an Ottawa Senators team that is thriving despite injuries to their best players.