2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Devils Need Kovalchuk to Produce More to Win the Cup

Andrew HirshContributor IIMay 1, 2012

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 02:  Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Montreal Canadiens at the Prudential Center on February 2, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Canadiens 5-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

What had been speculated for the past week was all but confirmed on Monday: The New Jersey Devils' highest-paid player is hurt. 

Ilya Kovalchuk, the $100 million man, has been receiving "therapy" of some kind, according to a team spokesman. This news came following New Jersey's Game 1 overtime loss to Philadelphia in which Kovalchuk failed to tally a single shot on goal in over 21 minutes of ice time. 

As it should be expected, the Devils refused to disclose what has been ailing the Russian winger—a smart decision on their part, especially when you consider their opponent. However, it's fair to assume that the therapy is physical. 

Regardless, this announcement only reaffirms what we already know: Kovalchuk has been nothing more than average this postseason, and the Devils' chances of raising the Cup this June unless that changes are slim to none. 

He does have three goals in eight playoff contests this spring, and that's not terrible by any means, but it's nothing to write home about either. When a cash-strapped team pays an athlete as much as the Devils are paying Kovalchuk, its ability to contend essentially lies in that players' ability to produce numbers that correlate with his salary. Kovalchuk's current pace simply doesn't cut it. 

Sure, the Devils were good enough to advance to the second round, but it took two overtimes in Game 7 against the Panthers to do so. With all due respect to Florida and what they accomplished this season, both New Jersey and Kovalchuk in particular need to find a new gear to defeat higher quality opponents. 

And based on Game 1 against the Flyers, they have yet to do so.

So what now? Should Kovalchuk tough it out and continue to play injured, or would it be more beneficial if he rested until healthy?

Strong arguments could be made both ways, but it's impossible to make an accurate decision on this matter until it becomes clear just how much the 29-year-old's ailment is affecting him.  

If Kovalchuk's lack of scoring thus far is mostly due to physical pain, then it would make sense to allow him to recover until he's capable of his All-Star level of production; players like him who are only strong at one end of the ice are not all that valuable when their one dimension is neutralized. 

However, if Kovalchuk's struggles and minus-5 playoff rating are more of a result of his mentality, then perhaps it would be best to allow him to continue to play and try to regain the spark that earned him a hefty 10-year contract in the first place. 

Pete DeBoer has stated that effort isn't an issue with Kovalchuk, but I would be willing to contest that. While No. 17 is ultra competitive and is still in search of his first taste of postseason success, he's still taking shifts off and doesn't place nearly enough emphasis on defense.  

Sure, an injury could play a major part in all that, but inconsistent effort has been typical of Kovalchuk since he entered the NHL in 2001.

The bottom line is that an injury, while debilitating, shouldn't give him a free pass. For the Devils to advance to the next round and go on to win their fourth Stanley Cup, Kovalchuk needs to return to his old ways at some point.

And if Sunday's loss to Philadelphia is any indication of what's to come, that needs to happen sooner rather than later. 


Andrew Hirsh is a credentialed NHL writer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh