Misguided or not, Devils fans let Kovalchuk have it

Getty
7 Comments

Let’s be honest: being a fan is almost inherently silly.

As Jerry Seinfeld famously joked, you’re often cheering for clothes. People lose sleep to watch games that go late, get in fights with fans of other teams, and spend tons of money to watch people play “a child’s game.” All silly.

On Tuesday, New Jersey Devils fans are choosing to be silly about Ilya Kovalchuk, a player who once helped them make an unexpected run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, only to leave for the KHL and eventually return to Newark as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. Despite leaving the Devils during the 2012-13 season, fans made their feelings about him being a “traitor” quite clear.

Fox Sports West collected some of the highlights/lowlights:

To reiterate: yes, this is kind of silly.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski is an authority on the subject of Devils fandom, and he hit the nail on the silly head leading into the game, noting that then-Devils-boss Lou Lamoriello mysteriously didn’t seem to have much of an issue with Kovalchuk leaving when he did:

In the case of Kovalchuk, his departure to Russia saved the Devils enormously. Depending on when he left, the Devils could have been on the hook for multiple years at $5 million of dead cap space. To put things in perspective: That’s an Andy Greene of dead cap space.

By leaving in Year 4 of his 15-year deal, Kovalchuk bailed the Devils out of a toxic contract. They have a cap recapture penalty of just $250,000 annually through 2025. That’s couch-cushion small change in the NHL. He did them an enormous favor, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Lamorielllo let him walk without a fight.

But, whatever. It’s uncomfortable that some of the signs seem … maybe a little … xenophobic, but at least Kovalchuk saw it coming. And it doesn’t seem like he had an issue with playing the role of the villain, at least leading into the game.

“I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing,” Kovalchuk said, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, after LA’s overtime win against the New York Rangers Monday night, “but I love that, so it’s all good.”

Judging by the look on Alec Martinez‘s face, Kovalchuk’s Kings teammates enjoyed some comic relief on Tuesday, too:

via Getty

This rude return seems especially noteworthy considering how long ago the Kovalchuk departure happened.

In that time, the now-35-year-old winger’s game has declined dramatically, to the point that the Devils might be lucky to not have him at all — certainly not at his old, satanic cap hit of $6.66M per year.

Just compare Kovalchuk’s rough 2018-19 to that of Marcus Johansson, a player the Devils almost certainly want to part ways with:

via Bill Comeau / Corsica Hockey

Even if some of Kovalchuk’s troubles might be a matter of not jiving well in Los Angeles – particularly with Willie Desjardins – he’s had a tough time by any measure.

So, really, Devils fans should probably just fondly recall the good times with Kovalchuk, and be glad that their rebuilding team doesn’t have a problem contract on the books.

But fans aren’t always coldly rational, and that’s mostly a good thing — because being a fan isn’t particularly rational, to begin with. And, like we’ve seen with Penguins booing Jaromir Jagr long after Kris Beech hung up his skates, Sharks fans comically booing John Tavares, and countless other examples, it’s not as though Devils fans are outliers here.

(It’s still really silly, though.)

***

The Kings ended up beating the Devils 5-1, with Kovalchuk scoring against New Jersey:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.