On the day before the 2001 NHL entry draft in that hockey hotbed of Sunrise, Fla., the projected No. 1 choice was doing the obligatory series of interviews with reporters. Considering how little English he actually spoke, Ilya Kovalchuk was handling them all pretty well, too. Kovalchuk had an interpreter by his side that day, but at every opportunity – whenever he grasped the basic gist of a question – he tried to answer on his own.
The overriding first impression was ultra-positive. Here was a Russian player, polite, but confident and fully committed to making the transition to the NHL, and to everything it stood for: Wealth, fame, but mostly – and he stressed this over and over – the chance to compete with and against the best players in the world for the Stanley Cup.
At different times in his career, especially during the dark, early Atlanta Thrashers' years, it wasn't always clear if Kovalchuk would get that chance. Kovalchuk always put up high goal-scoring numbers, but it wasn't until he joined the New Jersey Devils at the 2010 trading deadline, and then re-signed with them as a free agent later that same summer, that the rest of his game fell into place.
So now, on Tuesday – media day at the Stanley Cup final – Kovalchuk was there again, parrying questions in his charmingly accented English, with a chance to be the focal point of a series that opens Wednesday night against the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Kings.
Thus far in a scorching 12-2 run through the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Kings have yet to face someone with Kovalchuk's multi-dimensional skill set. He can stretch a defence like few others, and his ability to quarterback the power play will also put L.A.'s stellar penalty-killing to the test.
This year, he's added a penalty-killing dimension to his game, which he says helped contribute to his overall understanding of how to play defence. The Devils are seeking their first Stanley Cup championship in nine years. It is hard to imagine that they can win without some meaningful contribution from Kovalchuk, their $100-million man, who leads the NHL in playoff scoring with 18 points.
"So far, pretty good," assessed Kovalchuk, of the playoffs to date, "but we still have some job to do. L..A., they're a good team. They're not going to give us anything for free. We've got to work and earn it. We just want to be the good team we've been all playoffs."
Devils coach Peter DeBoer's first NHL encounters with Kovalchuk came when he was coaching the Florida Panthers and Kovalchuk was playing for the Thrashers.
"Ilya, in Atlanta, was a one-man show," DeBoer said. "You really felt, when you coached against him, that he felt the weight of winning or losing the game on himself. Whether that was personnel- or situation-related, it doesn't matter. What we had to get him away from was, 'You don't have to do that.' We've got 20 guys here, and you just have to do your part. It's going to be a big part, but it's not the whole part – and he did buy into that."
It also looked as if the $100-million (U.S.) contract weighed heavily on Kovalchuk last season, a deal that came about after a spirited bidding war between the Devils and the Kings for his services. For the first half of last season, before he and the Devils finally found their groove, it looked as if Kovalchuk was trying to earn that generous paycheque on every shift.
DeBoer thinks there's something to that.
"I can't get inside his head," cautioned DeBoer. "I don't know if it was the contract. I know his family wasn't here with him last year. But there were some big changes and a lot of pressure.
"I think he came in this year; he felt comfortable and open-minded. He just wanted to win. He wanted to play in the playoffs and have success in the playoffs.
"That was his only request. He was open to whatever he needed to do, if he was going to get that."
For his part, Kovalchuk says he ultimately chose to stay in New Jersey rather than move to L.A. because of the two months he spent with the Devils after the 2010 trading deadline.
"The way people treated me here, I really liked it," Kovalchuk said. "I knew that Lou [Lamoriello, the team's general manager]and ownership would always put a winning team on the ice to win the Cup. That's where I want to be.
"L.A., they've got a lot of young, talented guys and they deserve to be in the finals, so … it will be a great matchup."