July 12, 2013
Ilya Kovalchuk: HHOF Worthy?
HHOF Worthy? is a regular feature here at GreatestHockeyLegends.com. It seems a number of hockey pundits and the hockey world on Twitter have adopted this theme in the light of shocking retirement of New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk. After all, the announcement came on with the 2013 Hockey Hall of Fame induction news fresh on everyone's mind.
Before we get down to the debate I will just put my two cents in on Kovalchuk's "retirement." I completely agree with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News that this whole sham is just a little too convenient for everyone. Kovy can go home. The cash strapped Devils can get out of one of the most ridiculous contracts in NHL history. And the NHL can safely let them without charges of cap circumvention, which for some reason they do or don't depending on who they like that day, it seems.
I really have no problem with players going home early. In fact, I highly respect it. I think back to guys like Sweden's Hakan Loob who left way too early because family and home is more important than the big money and bright lights of the NHL. These guys have their priorities set right. Kovalchuk is leaving an awful lot of guaranteed money behind here.
But the fact that someone can "retire" and then go play in Europe just does not sit well with many of us. If returning home is your intention, that's great. But do not go sign a 15 year contract and then not honour your commitments.
And for Kovy to do this now, after most of the unrestricted free agents have signed, is a real slap in the face. The Devils could have used the cash savings to resign David Clarkson or restock with other UFAs.
Kovalchuk's departure will play a role in the final HHOF decision. Such controversies do make a difference. See Pavel Bure. The HHOF made him wait a few years partly because the face of the Vancouver Canucks bailed on his team.
But Bure did eventually make the Hockey Hall of Fame. And that's where the "yes" campaign for Ilya Kovalchuk begins. Pavel Bure played in 702 NHL games in an injury shortened career, and scored 437 goals. Kovalchuk played 816 NHL games and scored 417 goals. Those are pretty comparable numbers, though one could argue that Kovy does not match the bar set by Bure, though just barely.
But there can be no denying Kovalchuk was one of the top NHL players of his era. Only Jarome Iginla scored more goals (439) since 2001 when Kovy's career began. Kovy, who has long been one of the top minute-men in the NHL, also ranks second (behind Alexander Ovechkin) for goals scored since the 2005 lockout. Kovalchuk has long been one of the top gunners in the NHL, with a Rocket Richard Trophy and two 50 goal seasons to prove it.
Unfortunately Kovy played most of his career in obscurity in Atlanta. As a result his playoff resume is weak, though in he did help New Jersey reach the 2012 Stanley Cup final while leading the team in points and tied for the goal scoring lead in the entire NHL playoffs. Still, a playoff record with just 3 appearances and 32 games is weak in the HHOF's eyes.
What is not weak is his international resume, though the HHOF wrongly ignores that to some degree - see Eric Lindros or Sergei Makarov.
Kovy has represented Russia in the Olympics and World Championships, winning back-to-back gold medals at the 2008 and 2009 World Championships. At the 2008 tournament, he scored a pair of goals in the gold-medal game against Canada -- the first goal tied the score and sent the game into overtime; the second one won the game and the gold for Russia. Kovy was named as the tournament's best forward in 2009.
My guess is the Hockey Hall of Fame will not induct Ilya Kovalchuk, and his deserting of his NHL contract will play a big role. But what if he goes home and, as the face of Russian hockey, helps the home country win gold at the Sochi Olympics in 2014? What if he helps Russia win a couple more world championships? Or, like Bobby Hull with the WHA many years ago, becomes the man that legitimizes the KHL?
Ilya Kovalchuk's career is far from over so the verdict regarding his HHOF worthiness remains undecided. It is a tall order, but even from outside of the NHL Kovy can set a legacy that should make him a slam dunk candidate. Although even if he does that my gut tells me the HHOF will (wrongly) disregard it.