By Max Herman
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He was the crown jewel of this past summer’s free agency period.  He’s a man who has scored at least 38 goals in every season since his rookie campaign.  And he’s being compensated handsomely for almost a decade’s worth of individual success.  So who is this impostor that’s been wearing number 17, and what has he done with Ilya Kovalchuk?

At his current pace, Kovy is on track to finish the year with a paltry 16 goals this season.  To give you an idea of how disastrous that would be by his standards, consider that last year Kovalchuk notched his 16th goal by December 5th.

It is plain for all to see that this is a guy who is messed up mentally right now.  Whether Ilya wants to admit it or not, the weight of signing his $100M contract this summer has become an emotional burden.  A prime example of this came Wednesday night in the shootout against Buffalo…

The stakes were simple.  Score a goal or lose the game.  He collected the puck at center-ice with a head of steam.  Came roaring across the blue line toward rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth, stickhandling frantically all the while.  And then, just as he looked up to execute his move, the unthinkable happened…the puck rolled off his stick.  Not only had Kovalchuk not scored, he didn’t even shoot…

Everyone watching that game had to have the same reaction, regardless of rooting allegiances: Did that really just happen? The Wade-Phillips-esque look on Kovy’s face indicated he was thinking the same thing.  So what exactly is the problem?

Yes, Zach Parise’s injury was probably the last thing that Ilya needed.  He seems to be playing as if he has no one else around him to help shoulder the load offensively.  How many times have we seen him try to skate around three or four guys by himself?  Maybe an even worse indictment is typified by the few times that he’s had a shooting window and instead tried to force a pass.  Clearly, the anxiety associated with this slow start has him gripping his stick tight enough to turn it to sawdust.

Perhaps Travis Zajac isn’t truly a first-line center.  Maybe Jamie Langenbrunner doesn’t have the burst to keep up with Kovalchuk.  But to fault those guys for Ilya’s poor play is a bit of a stretch.

To his credit, Kovy isn’t shying away from his mediocrity in the press.  He has owned up to the fact that he is not even close to playing up to his standards.  But how many times can a guy be asked how disappointed he is with himself before it breaks him?  One can only hope that it hasn’t happened already.

Can the ship be righted?  Well of course it can.  The question is, will it?  I hate to say it folks, but we’re getting deep enough into the schedule where you can begin to seriously doubt the Devils’ legitimacy as a potential playoff team.  That’s hard to fathom for a franchise that hasn’t missed the postseason since the 1995-96 season, but it is the grim reality.

With Parise slated to be out until February, this much is clear – the Devs are going to have to rely on their $100M man to put his imprint on this team.  So far he’s hardly made a whimper.  But make no mistake about it, if this guy gets his head right, he can be exactly the sparkplug this team needs to get back on the right track.  But patience and time are running thin.  It MUST start now…

Max’s Three Stars of the Week

Third Star: RW Jamie Langenbrunner

Many fans have been frustrated with Langenbrunner’s play early on this year.  A lot of it has been associated with the “C” on his sweater.  The captain had a solid couple of games this week, including scoring his 3rd goal of the year on Wednesday against Buffalo.  While three goals may not be much to write home about, two of them have come in his last three games.  It sure would be a welcome sight to the Devils if Langenbrunner can pick up his scoring pace.

Second Star: LW Patrik Elias

Ever since he and Jason Arnott have been placed back on the same line, the two of them have seemed to build on their chemistry with each game.  Elias has four assists in his last three contests, and three of them have set up Arnott goals.  Former first-round draft pick Mattias Tedenby played with the duo in his first NHL game against Buffalo and seemed to complement them beautifully.  Look for this line to see their fair share of ice time in the games to come.

First Star: C Jason Arnott

Considering he scored half of the Devils’ goals in the two games from this past week, this one was pretty much a slam dunk.  As much as the Devils have struggled this season, Jason deserves one of the smaller pieces of the blame pie.  All he’s done is lead the team in goals and points. He also has the team lead in power play goals, but that’s only by virtue of the fact that he’s the only player to score two of them.  If the power play is to get its act together, Arnott figures to be a big part of that.

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