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The evolution of Ilya Kovalchuk

5/28/2012
Ilya Kovalchuk has evolved into a leader on the New Jersey Devils. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

One by one they left for bigger success elsewhere. The first to leave Ilya Kovalchuk and the Atlanta Thrashers was Dany Heatley, one of Kovalchuk's closest friends with the Thrashers. He was the roommate on the road who helped Kovalchuk learn English and make the adjustment to North America.

"Dany really helped him out," said Curt Fraser, Kovalchuk's first NHL coach. "Whey Ilya came and they both arrived, they hooked up and did everything together. Dany gets a lot of credit for helping Ilya out, making sure everything was good for him."

In August 2005, Heatley was traded to Ottawa, and less than two years later he was playing in the Stanley Cup finals, leading all 2007 postseason players with 22 points in 20 games.

The next to go was Marc Savard. He was the one and only playmaking center Kovalchuk had during his time in Atlanta. In 2005-06, Savard put up 97 points with the Thrashers, and that same year, Kovalchuk scored 52 goals, a personal high he hasn't topped since.

On July 1, 2006, Savard signed with the Boston Bruins, and while it wasn't a storybook finish for Savard, whose career has been shortened because of concussions, his name has since been etched into eternity on the Stanley Cup thanks to Boston's incredible run last spring.

Marian Hossa left next. During Kovalchuk's one and only playoff appearance with the franchise that drafted him, Hossa was the guy who kept other teams honest. Kovalchuk was the high-scoring superstar who led the top line and Hossa was the responsible, two-way player who anchored the next wave for the Thrashers. It worked for awhile, but Hossa wasn't convinced it would last. He was right.

Before he could leave like Savard, Hossa was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins before the 2008 trade deadline and helped a young Pittsburgh team advance to the Stanley Cup finals. He returned to the finals with the Detroit Red Wings the following season and finally won it all with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, contributing 15 points in 22 games during Chicago's run, including an overtime goal in the first round against Nashville that spared the Blackhawks an early-round upset.

Through it all, Kovalchuk waited for his own opportunity, and it couldn't have been easy.

"It's made him want it even more," said Scott Mellanby, whose time as Kovalchuk's captain in Atlanta helped shaped his early maturation as a player.

This year, the postseason disappointment/player departure cycle almost happened again.

The Florida Panthers pushed Kovalchuk and the Devils to the brink of elimination in a first-round series that now seems like a lifetime ago. If it's Florida that scores in the second overtime of Game 7, eliminating the Devils, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which Zach Parise joins the list of stars leaving Kovalchuk behind after a disappointing finish.

Instead, the narrative has completely changed. Instead of another turn at disappointment, it's Kovalchuk's turn to win something big. To outshine his old friend Heatley. To equal Hossa and Savard. To show that his maturation as a player that has slowly developed since he joined the league as a teenager is complete.

It starts on Wednesday against the Kings in the Stanley Cup finals.

"Kovy is getting the job done," said his former coach Bob Hartley on Sunday before he took in Shawinigan's Memorial Cup win. "I worked with Kovy when he was a very young man. Now I look at him on the ice, I look at him addressing the media and I don't see that young man anymore. I see him as a real pro. A guy who cares about his team, a guy who is very proud about his game."

"It's been great to watch," said Fraser, Atlanta's first coach. "Those were good kids. They've come a long ways and they're not kids anymore. They're men."

For Kovalchuk, it was never a matter of not wanting to win, it was an issue of going about it the right way. He came into the league the rarest blend of size, strength and incredible skill. He played with passion even if it was misguided at times.

"He was an offensive dynamo. He was so good offensively," Fraser said. "That's all he had done his whole life ... he had been told his whole life to wait at the blue line for the puck and go. Go score goals."

If he missed an assignment on defense that led to an opposing goal, the solution wasn't to tighten up next time on defense. It was to try to score two goals instead of one. That's a tough way to win in the NHL.

"He had a lot to learn. He had all this talent, all this skill but he had to learn the NHL game," Fraser said.

And he had to mature.

Fraser laughed while telling a story from Kovalchuk's rookie season. His sticks from Russia still had more curve than allowed in the NHL and the Oilers called him on it. While sitting in the penalty box he was given teammate Shean Donovan's stick and when the penalty expired, he jumped out of the box, scored the game winner then skated past the Oilers bench for a few choice words.

"This kid could score with a canoe paddle," Fraser said. "But I thought the Oilers were going to kill him."

After the game, Oilers coach Craig MacTavish made it clear to reporters he wasn't impressed.

"I guess he's too young to learn that what goes around comes around," MacTavish said. "He's a very cocky kid."

Mellanby remembered a game during his first season with the Thrashers in which Atlanta was trying to close out an opponent who had pulled its goalie. Kovalchuk stayed on the ice for a good 90 seconds and ended up giving the puck away in the middle of the ice. The Thrashers won the game, but Mellanby made it clear that wasn't the way to go about doing it.

"I remember going up to him and I said something to the effect of 'If you ever do that again, I'm going to tear your head off.' Probably with a couple expletives," Mellanby said.

But what impressed Mellanby was Kovalchuk's attitude the next day when things cooled off. The captain and his star had a quiet conversation in the dressing room at the Bell Centre, where Kovalchuk accepted the lesson and tried to learn from it.

"I told him how much I liked him as a person and needed him to understand why I said what I said and the example he was setting with his selfishness trying to be out there that long," Mellanby said. "It was a really, really positive experience. Those are the kind of lessons that Bob Hartley tried to teach him. It's hard when you're having success and you're in a market like Atlanta where people aren't that knowledgable hockey-wise. You score 40 goals, 50 goals and you're a kid and everyone is telling you you're the best thing since sliced bread. It's a harder environment to learn."

Kovalchuk was listening. He was learning, and the learning curve sped up dramatically with the shift to New Jersey, where Kovalchuk has been immersed with a focus on team, the example set by Lou Lamoriello and implemented by people like Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and now Pete DeBoer.

Mixing Kovalchuk's game-changing abilities into a team concept now has the Devils four wins away from another Stanley Cup. He's no longer the one left behind, he's the one leading the way.

"Over the years, he's changed," Fraser said. "Now he's a big part of the Devils going to the Stanley Cup finals. That should be enough proof for everybody."