Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Jets & 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.

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