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.
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