ATLANTA – In his usual self-assured way, Ilya Kovalchuk quickly dismissed a pregame question about whether he is putting too much pressure on himself after signing a $101-million contract as the Devils' season seems to continually hit new depths.
"No," Kovalchuk said, "it's never too much."
With the Devils' only goal on Saturday in a stinging 7-1 loss to his former team, the Thrashers, Kovalchuk seems to be hitting his stride offensively, but that, in itself, does not seem to be enough to get the Devils going.
Kovalchuk now has three goals and four assists in his last five games, but the Devils have won just once in their last eight games, including Saturday in Atlanta. Defense, however, is another matter. Kovalchuk's minus-3 rating on Saturday officially sank his minus-21 rating on the season to the League's worst, tied with teammate Andy Greene and the New York Islanders' James Wisniewski.
Asked after the game if the Devils' situation is getting worse and not better, Kovalchuk responded in frustration.
The irony on Saturday was hard to escape: the team that Kovalchuk captained for parts of two seasons -- and for which he owns virtually every offensive record – continued its upward rise without him, taking over first place in the Southeast Division, while his Devils, with whom he signed in part because of the allure of their three Stanley Cups since 1995, stand just two points away from having the League's worst record.
Before the game, as Kovalchuk met with reporters, he was asked if he regretted his decision to turn down Atlanta's contract offers, whose average annual value proved, in the end, to be higher than what he received from the Devils.
"No, just like I said, I'm looking for something new," he said. "New challenges and I just decided it was time to move on."
He may have moved on, but many of the fans in Atlanta have not. When he came out for warm-ups, fans had plastered signs behind the Devils' net that said things like "Koval Choke" – a reference to his struggles, as the two-time 50-goal scorer went 16 games with only one goal from Oct. 27 to Dec. 2 – and was taunted with another sign that made use of a dollar sign. He was lustily booed at virtually every turn: When he hit the ice for warm-ups, when his name was announced in the starting lineup, every time he touched the puck and, loudest of all, after he scored his eighth goal of the season.
Before the game, Kovalchuk held no illusions about how he would be greeted by the fans. He had played at Philips Arena once before and the reception was similar. Earlier in the week, the man who grudgingly traded him, former Thrashers general manager Don Waddell who has since moved into a role as the team's president, said Thrashers fans should remember all of the good things Kovalchuk did during his time in Atlanta.
"Fans are interesting," Waddell said. "We have loyal fans. They seem to forget some of the good things and only think about the bad things. I'm sure his reception -- there will be a mix in the crowd. Again, Kovy did a lot for this franchise. We can't forget that."
Prior to the game, Kovalchuk downplayed the significance of his return.
"It's just one of the games," he said. "I spent eight good years here and they're doing pretty good right now so we need to take care of our business."
He said he was happy for the success of his former team, as he still counts a number of Thrashers players as friends. He said the team had made a lot of good moves and that they are headed in the right direction.
In an immediate sense, that is not something that can be said about Kovalchuk's current team. Asked prior to the game as to what ailed them, he said the problem was consistency.
"We play one good game and then we don't show up," he said, "so we need to fix that."
After the game, his assessment of his team's play was less diplomatic.
"Everything went wrong," he said. "I don't know what. It's unacceptable. It's embarrassing."