NEWARK, N.J. --Ilya Kovalchuk's renaissance in New Jersey can be defined in the old "buts" and the new "ands."
Before Kovalchuk immersed himself into the Devil way with a 15-year, $101 million contract, critics would say he's a great goal scorer, but he doesn't play defense. He was known as a superstar player in Atlanta, but not a team player. He could finish the season tied for the League lead in goals, as he did in 2003-04, but he couldn't lead the Thrashers to the playoffs. He finally did that in 2007, but they weren't good enough to win a game.
"I thought he was selfish," NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick told NHL.com. "I thought he only cared about himself and his goals. He would alienate his teammates. He would make bad changes. He just did a lot of things that were not team-oriented. He was the captain, and I found that pretty disgusting."
Kovalchuk has spent the better part of the last season-and-a-half changing the opinion of guys like Roenick.
Now he's still as a lethal a goal scorer as ever, and he's a good defensive player. Now he's a superstar player, and a team-first player. Now he's good enough to lead the NHL in playoff points with 18 this spring, and good enough to help his team reach the Stanley Cup Final.
"Kovalchuk has grown more than most superstars have in the National Hockey League," Roenick said. "He's an all-around player and much more of a team player. If he doesn't grow like that, the team doesn't get here to the Final."
"If you had a negative opinion of Ilya, I don't know how it can't be positive now," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "And, yes, there are people around the League that have had a negative opinion of him. If you want me to go one step further, in my view Alexander Ovechkin could improve his game by watching Ilya Kovalchuk a little bit closer."
Kovalchuk and all those around him agree that he has grown as a player. However, they are adamant that he has not changed as a person, and that the perception of Kovalchuk in Atlanta couldn't have been further from the truth.
"I don't think anything people said about him was his fault," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told NHL.com. "He came in at 18 years old, expected to carry a franchise. He had tremendous talent and he was just allowed to use his talent, and you get into habits over a period of time. He wants to win. He cares. It just took some time to adjust, and right now he's just gotten better and better."
"I don't think I changed," Kovalchuk told NHL.com. "I don't think they want me to change. They signed me here to be myself."
The Devils like the guy he is.
"I don't think a lot of people realized that he wanted to win, he wanted to help," Devils center Travis Zajac told NHL.com. "He really wants to do whatever it takes. We saw it right from the beginning. I'm not sure other people saw it, but that's the way we felt."
Zach Parise will never forget the first day Kovalchuk walked into the Devils dressing room. He was acquired from Atlanta in a blockbuster trade on Feb. 4, 2010. New Jersey had a home game the following day against Toronto.
"As a player and I guess as a fan, you're still kind of in awe that he's on your team," Parise told NHL.com. "Right or wrong, that's just the way I felt."
Left Wing - NJD
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 18
SOG: 58 | +/-: -4
Parise also felt Kovalchuk came in with the right attitude. Nothing has changed.
"When he came here, right from the first day he was all about the team, winning," Parise said. "I'm the type of person that forms my own opinion, you can't believe everything you hear, and that opinion from Day 1 hasn't changed. He's always been a team-first guy."
Lamoriello said he knew Kovalchuk would be that way. That's why he pulled the trigger on the trade for him. It's partly why he gave him such a monster contract in the summer of 2010.
"I really don't believe when people say he's not a good person, he's not this and that, it's something that bothers me more than anything," Lamoriello said. "Don Waddell and Rick Dudley told me he's a quality individual, and those are two people, when they say that, I respect it."
Kovalchuk, though, still had to adapt to the way the Devils play. He couldn't survive in this organization without becoming a strong two-way player.
"Oh yeah, we've made him into a Devil, no question," Zajac said with a smile.
Jacques Lemaire helped him with that when Kovalchuk got to New Jersey, but he regressed under John MacLean. The two would clash, and it once led to MacLean leaving Kovalchuk out of the lineup.
Lemaire returned and Kovalchuk got back on the straight and narrow. He's become even better under coach Peter DeBoer, who Kovalchuk likes because he gives him the freedom to be creative in the offensive zone as long as he doesn't forget about his defensive responsibilities.
"It was an easy adjustment," Kovalchuk said.
But it wasn't an easy road to the Stanley Cup Final, not when you know people are talking bad about you and saying you're not the type of guy who can lead a team this far.
"What I care about are people who know me, what they say," Kovalchuk said. "All those people that were talking about me, they never met me. It's important what people think about you, but to me it's very important what people think who knows me. When you play in Atlanta it's tough, because all people talk about is winning and we were not fortunate enough to win anything. But I had a great experience and I played a lot of minutes."
"I don't think anything people said about him was his fault. He came in at 18 years old, expected to carry a franchise. He had tremendous talent and he was just allowed to use his talent, and you get into habits over a period of time. He wants to win. He cares. It just took some time to adjust, and right now he's just gotten better and better." -- Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello on the leadership of Ilya Kovalchuk
A lot of minutes with little to no repercussions about what he was doing because he was the face of the franchise, the guy who could do no wrong and yet wasn't saddled with much outside pressure to turn the team into a winner.
Atlanta had no winning tradition. The Devils did.
"If he didn't score two goals, they might not win. He had to basically carry the team and win games for them," Devils forward Dainius Zubrus said. "Our team is different. Even without him scoring we can win games. I think he's become obviously more complete as a player because he's way better in his own zone, way more responsible both ways. I'm sure he'll tell you the same thing himself. He's doing way better than before."
Kovalchuk will say that. While he credits Lemaire for helping him in the defensive zone, he thanks DeBoer for showing confidence in him to play on the penalty kill, where he's been a factor all season long.
"That's when you really learn how to play in your own zone and communicate with the guys," Kovalchuk said of the PK. "That was very helpful. In Atlanta there was always pressure to score and to create, but here it is bigger pressure because the market is bigger and the price is higher."
The price put more pressure on Kovalchuk to mature as a player, to become who he is today.
"I like that kind of pressure, when people expect a lot from you," Kovalchuk said. "That's why you play hockey."
His days of being a "but" player are done. Kovalchuk is an "and" player -- and he's four wins away from being a championship player.
"You want to be the winner, and I'll do anything to accomplish that goal," Kovalchuk said. "We'll see what happens in the next couple of weeks."