The Kovalchuk Syndrome

Writing a history of a team in a new city can be both difficult and thrilling.

For the newly named Jets, Winnipeg is that city.

But, as we all have heard at sometime in our life, we must learn from history to keep us from repeating it.

I’d like to take a moment to address the franchise’s history – in Atlanta.

From their inaugural season in 1999-2000 to their relocation following the 2010-11 season, in twelve seasons of Thrasher hockey, the team was dismal to say the most.

But that has to be expected with an expansion team. Most writers and pundits will predict and expect a team to fill up on draft picks and finally be a winner.

It has happened in Nashville. It has happened in Minnesota. And to a lesser extent, it has happened in Columbus.

But it never happened in Atlanta.

It is because of what I like to call the "Kovalchuk Syndrome".

If you watch Ilya Kovalchuk’s endeavors after his days in Atlanta with the New Jersey Devils the past two seasons, the Devils took a turn for the worse in 2010-11 and finished out of the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96.

And Kovalchuk was a dismal 60 points in 81 games, a far cry from the player who scored 50+ goals twice before. His 60 points were also his lowest since his rookie season where he collected 51 points.

Why am I connecting Kovalchuk to the newly named Jets?

Because the franchise has a chance to move forward or be stuck in the Kovalchuk Syndrome.

As the former face of the franchise, Kovalchuk led the Thrashers to their only post-season appearance in 2006-07 where they were swept by the New York Rangers.

He had five seasons where he scored 40 or more goals in Atlanta. Eventually, Kovalchuk was named captain and then demanded to be traded because the team wasn’t going anywhere.

Broken down to its core, the Kovalchuk Syndrome translates to only three out of twelve seasons with a winning record, one of which was even a playoff birth – a Southeast Division Championship.

Kovalchuk was the franchise player who could not elevate his team to be better. He wasn’t Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay. He wasn’t Jarome Iginla in Calgary. And he wasn’t Joe Thornton in Boston.

He wasn’t known as a game changer. A player who would take a team on his back and get the most out of his teammates.

Maybe that wasn’t expected of him. Maybe that was expected of Patrik Stefan.

Many other names come to mind that added to the Kovalchuk Syndrome. Players who have gone on from Atlanta and have proven their worth as big time players.

Marian Hossa in Chicago. Marc Savard in Boston, despite injuries. Dany Heatley in Ottawa and to a lesser extent San Jose. And to even a lesser extent Kari Lehtonen in Dallas.

The team in Atlanta never succeeded as much as their sister teams did in Nashville, Minnesota, or Columbus.

Nashville has created a winning atmosphere of frugal spending. They have let good players go, such as Chris Mason, Dan Ellis, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen, but have always been able to compete with younger, good picks they brought in.

Minnesota has been a hot hockey market that has had it’s ups and downs including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in their first ever playoff appearance in 2002-03.

Columbus has had it’s tough times but has built a team that is set for the future, including new pieces Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski.

But out of the four teams, Atlanta has suffered most and now they have been put out of their suffering with the relocation to Winnipeg.

With a bright future ahead including many high-profile, young players, Atlanta may have been a few years off. But for a non-traditional hockey market that was bottom five in attendance in the NHL, a few years off was too late.

In Winnipeg, the Andrew Ladd led Jets have a chance to break the Kovalchuk Syndrome. They could even do it as soon as this season if they were to make the playoffs and even win a game.

The culture of the Kovalchuk Syndrome seems to be changing now that the team is in Winnipeg.

Its transformation has started from the upper management and has continued down to the players themselves.

Gone are the distractions, previous management, and previous inconsistently poor players.

Add into that equation the rabid fan support already shown in the Drive To 13,000 in Winnipeg’s MTS Centre and the Syndrome could be broken this season very easily.

Just wait until Kovalchuk steps into the MTS Centre and realizes what he’s missed out on.

Actually, let’s be thankful he isn’t a Jet.

  • RexLibris

    I think some mention of the ownership and management problems are also worth a look here. The Heatley for Hossa swap is about the only trade I can remember the Thrashers having won or tied on. They waived a young Steve Staios on a team that could have used his leadership and work ethic years ago. The draft record is also damnable, not because of the Patrik Stefan debacle, so much, as because of their apparent inability to find quality players in the second and third rounds where their end of season records gave them good drafting position with nothing to show aside from a few flashy 1st rounders.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disagreeing with you, just adding my own observations to your article. I think it’s important for Winnipeggers to know the history of their inherited franchise.

    • This is true too. After I read your response, I think I was taking a perspective from the players point of view. Everything that was going on at ice level with the players as in team chemistry, star power, and the overall success of the team in the standings.

      Ownership was always an issue with Atlanta to it’s very final days. And I’m glad you responded the way in which you did because it points out a few flaws of that management.

      Bad drafting, poor trades, and some sub-par coaching aside from Bob Hartley, that equates a very poor NHL team situation.

      You can’t blame Kovalchuk for everything, but I think he was the face of everything that didn’t go right in Atlanta and he’s still carrying it around even in New Jersey as if he’s cursed.

  • RexLibris

    I’d agree about Kovalchuk, in that he wasn’t what the team needed, and arguably they never had the kind of leadership in their stars that it would have taken to get them on, at the very least, a par with the other teams you mention. Hossa, Kovalchuk, and Heatley all offered a minimal amount of leadership to diminishing levels as I have them listed, IMO.

    I also wanted to mention that while the Wild and Predators have had more success than the Thrashers had, those franchises certainly don’t set a high benchmark for post-season success and development year over year. Nashville in the last two years appears to have found consistency in stepping forward, at least in small increments and when I hear people talk about Barry Trotz it reminds me of what people used to say about Glen Sather: “Imagine what he could do if he had… (Trotz: talent, Sather: money)”

    As I said before, I like the article and the background you’re giving. I’m an Oilers fan, but have said over on FlamesNation, without meaning to insult or troll in any way, that I rate the Leafs, Sens, Oilers, and Jets all on the same page in being in the third tier of Canadian cup hopefuls. The Canucks are in the top, obviously (and begrudgingly), the Canadiens are next, while the Flames are in the bottom tier, as the furthest away from a championship. My reason for this is that while the Jets do not appear to have as strong a prospect pool as other teams, they have something the Flames don’t – management that understands their current situation and has a plan to manage it. Something that the Thrashers, also, lacked in their previous incarnation.

  • Working off what you said, if you were to rate the four expansion teams in the late 90s, early 00s, Atlanta would be a distant last because of a mixture of things.

    As for tier of Canadian teams, I’d have to (also begrudgingly) agree with you that the Jets are in the lower tier. But, on the upside, I think they, along with the Oilers, are the two teams that are due for a breakout into the upper tier’s of Cup contenders with that of the Canadiens just because of good upper management, ownership, and drafting talent they have amassed. Again, the Jets pool is limited versus the Oilers, but they have to start somewhere.

  • RexLibris

    The Oilers appear to have a good group of propects, yes, but there are questions that many fans here have about the quality of decision-making that we can expect for the next phase of the rebuild to ensure that it doesn’t stall and sputter out like a plane gaining altitude. My evaluation of the Canadian franchises has more to do with their life-cycle, in that Vancouver is at the top right now and will almost inevitably begin to decline, while the Jets, Oilers and Sens all appear to be on the same level of low-performance at the present while laying down a solid foundation for gradual buildup. I expect that there will be some contention in five years between the Jets and Oil for dominance in the West similar to what there was between Calgary and Vancouver 3 or 4 years ago. The Jets have one, crucial, and very hard to find asset in place that many other franchises do not, including Calgary, Toronto, and Ottawa. That is a sane, patient, and knowledgable ownership/management group that understands the best way forward is to get good people at key positions and let them do their job.

    As an aside, given that Atlanta has now spawned two Canadian franchises, could locals refer to Georgia as a birthplace of Canadian hockey?

  • I hope, for hockey’s sake, that the NHL only goes back to hockey markets that are a 100% guarantee that they will succeed and have hockey support and are in a traditional market. The only markets I can see it going back to now are Quebec City and possibly Hartford.

  • RexLibris

    Piss poor managment killed the Thrashers and it wasn’t dudley who killed them. We all know who is to blame in Atlanta. Good riddabce to the entire thrahers management. The Jets will thrive and prosper. The heart of hockey is in canada. No matter the economy or the doomsayers. This is where our heart and our collective pocketbooks lie. how much did TSN pay to get those jets broadcasts? It was an obscene number I can gaurantee. why did they pay.Because they know that almost every warmblooded manitoban will be tunes in this season as the Jets return. The Thrahers couldnt draw flies let alone have any of them watch on Versus. Pathetic. I lok forward to the many battles in the years ahead with my Oilers. It will be stuff of legend for a new hockey generation in Winnipeg. Its not only winnipegers who are excited about the Jets return. Go Jets Go.

  • MC Hockey

    Agree with the concept of the Kovalchuk Syndrome. A change in scenery for players from a badly-managed franchise did allow guys like Savard to be better elsewhere, perhaps the new teams for those type of guys know how to best use them where Atlanta coaches and GMs did not. Super excited for the Jets return with new owners who care, new hockey operations management, and a few new players while keeping the core (assuming Bogosian signs) to allow the team to take a new direction.