Behind the Trouble With Kovy
If you want to know what started all the trouble with Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey, it apparently all relates to Martin St. Louis in a connect-the-dots, six-degrees-of-separation kind of way.
Last season in Tampa, Adam Oates joined the Lightning staff and convinced management and head coach Rick Tocchet that after years of playing right wing - his off wing - St. Louis needed to be shifted to the left side. That's no small thing for a star player like St. Louis.
Oates' theory, that he backs up with videotape evidence, is that left-handed players need to play on the left side and right-handed players on the right side because it's more important than ever in the faster, modern NHL that wingers be moving north-south with the puck, rather than cutting into the middle of the ice as many players who skate on their off-wing are prone to do.
St. Louis made the switch essentially without complaint in late December, right around the time he wasn't selected to play for the Canadian Olympic team, and he ended up having a strong second half. He accepted the change, and this season has continued to play the left side on Tampa's top line with centre Steven Stamkos and right winger Steve Downie, even though NHL stats still list St. Louis as a right winger.
So what does this have to do with Kovalchuk?
Well, after Tocchet and his staff were fired at the end of last season, Oates joined John MacLean's new coaching group with the Devils. Not surprisingly, he pushed to have Kovalchuk, a right-handed shot, moved from left wing to right wing. The St. Louis experiment, after all, had seemingly legitimized Oates' theory.
The difference was that while St. Louis accepted the change, Kovalchuk did not. He chafed, and ultimately rebelled. He comes from a Russian hockey culture in which it is common for wingers to play their off wings, and years of successful sniping in Atlanta left him convinced that's where he had to be.
The Devils wanted him to play right wing on a line with left winger Zach Parise and centre Travis Zajac, but Kovalchuk's very apparent unhappiness with the arrangement, insiders say, is what led to him being late for a team meeting prior to being scratched for a game on Oct. 23.
Subsequently, he has been returned to left wing, in essence rewarded for his obstinance, and the Devils as a team seem to be unravelling. After so many years in which players obediently followed orders, Kovalchuk has changed the culture in Jersey, particularly with the club's salary cap structure so dominated by Kovalchuk's deal.
So much for theories.