By Allan Muir
Before he stunned the hockey world with his abrupt retirement announcement on Thursday, Ilya Kovalchuk was on track to rank among the greatest Russian-born players in NHL history.
Maybe the greatest.
That won’t happen now. Not unless he decides that home cooking and same-day viewings of the Evening Urgant Show aren’t quite as satisfying as his homesick mind made them out to be. And even if he does have a change of heart, it would take the approval of all 30 teams before he’d be allowed back in the NHL.
Don’t count on that happening.
So instead we’re left to ponder the impact of career cut short. Not what might have been. What was.
All things considered, he did pretty well for himself over 11 NHL seasons.
The first Russian ever taken first overall in the NHL draft, Kovalchuk was a unique talent, a speedy, sure-handed sniper in the body of a power forward. Though he could have played a bull-in-a-china-shop game, he used his strength to win battles, overpower defenders and protect the puck.
“The power that he brings … he is a power forward, he has hockey sense and he knows how to make other people around him better,” Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said after trading for Kovalchuk back in 2010. “You can tell by the assists he gets. He can do things a lot of people can’t do.”
One of those things was fire the puck. Sure, everybody in the NHL can shoot, but few had the ability to get so much on it with such a high degree of accuracy. It would explode off his stick, angry and with great purpose, making him one of the game’s most consistent marksmen.
He was a relentless worker, an athlete who would play hurt. His defensive game matured after he joined the Devils, and he became a fixture on the penalty kill. And he finally got the chance to prove himself in the postseason, scoring 10 goals and 25 points in 28 games and starring in New Jersey’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.
But even with all that, there was always a sense that there was … more he could be doing. That he was leaving something in the tank. Despite that devastating scoring touch, he earned just one Rocket Richard Trophy (2003-04), and even that one he had to share with two other players. There was one Second-Team All-Star honor. He couldn’t even capture more than one Kharlamov Trophy, the award given to the top Russian player in the NHL by Sovietsky Sport magazine.
He seemed weighed down by the responsibilities of being the go-to guy on bad teams in Atlanta. Even so, he put up some ridiculous numbers.
Just four Russian-born players have scored more career points than Kovalchuk’s 816. Sergei Fedorov tops the list with 1,179, followed by Alexander Mogilny (1,032), Alexei Kovalev (1,029) and Slava Kozlov (853).
Just three Russians who have at least 500 NHL games under their belts topped his point-per-game average: Alex Ovechkin (1.22), Pavel Bure (1.11) and Mogilny (1.04).
Kovalchuk ranks third all-time with 138 power play goals (Fedorov scored 144; Mogilny had 141), and fourth with 60 game-winners (Fedorov, 93, Kovalev, 70, Mogilny 66).
The one stat that really throbs as a missed opportunity is career goals. Kovalchuk, a Rocket Richard-winner in 2004, retires with 417. At the rate he was scoring, he could have made history as the league’s first Russian-born player to net 500 — as soon as next season. Instead, he walks away fifth all-time, trailing Fedorov (483), Mogilny (473), Bure (437) and Kovalev (430).
So he’ll settle for rubles over records and trophies and Cups as he moves on to the KHL, leaving legacy-building to the likes of Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.
Assuming they don’t follow him home, of course.