The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
There is a bit of irony in the fact that three former Thrashers begin play in the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday.
The NHL championship series, between the Devils and Kings, gets underway just days shy of the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta franchise being sold and relocated to Winnipeg. There is a unique bond that ties current Devils Eric Boulton, Johan Hedberg and Ilya Kovalchuk. The three were fan favorites with the Thrashers — all played on the lone playoff team in 2006-07 — and spent years toiling here with limited success. They now stand at the precipice of the sport’s ultimate prize.
“When you work for something for a long time and haven’t been unable to reach your ultimate goal, I think you appreciate it more,” Hedberg told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. “You look at it like a gift, especially when you really know how hard it is to get here. I’ve been in the playoffs before but unable to have this kind of success, so it’s very, very exciting.”
Boulton said the three are more than teammates, but friends.
“We definitely have a little bit of a bond, knowing what we went through together in Atlanta,” Boulton told the AJC.
Kovalchuk was traded by the Thrashers to the Devils on Feb. 4, 2010 after the two sides could not reach an agreement on a new contract. The Devils later signed Kovalchuck to a 15-year, $100 million contract.
Kovalchuk, the first overall selection in the 2001 entry draft by the Thrashers, went on to become a three-time All-Star and the franchise’s all-time leader in nearly every offensive category, including games played, goals, assists and points. He said this week that the Thrashers’ failure to make the playoffs was a major reason he left.
“That’s the reason why I left Atlanta,” Kovalchuk told the Star Ledger of Newark, N.J., on Monday. “I had a good time, played a lot of minutes and scored a lot of points, but I was done by April every time. That’s when I decided it was time to move on.
“It was a little disappointing that I played there for 10 years and we never had a chance to accomplish our goal. Now I know I made the right decision.”
Kovalchuk, who reportedly is building a house in New Jersey, is the Devils’ leading scorer in the playoffs (seven goals, 11 assists) and the regular season (37 goals, 46 assists).
Hedberg was not re-signed by the Thrashers following the 2009-10 season. He is on a second one-year deal with the Devils. He appeared in part of one playoff game, a first-rounder against the Panthers, serving as the backup to future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Hedberg was 17-7 with a .918 save percentage during the regular season.
“I played a lot early in the season but as it got close to the playoffs, Marty got more and more time and has been playing so well,” Hedberg said. “I’m back to being in a supporting role. I’m just trying to stay ready for whatever may happen, supporting the team by being a positive guy around the locker room and helping everybody be on top of their game.”
Hedberg’s family has remained in Atlanta during his time in New Jersey. He said this season the schedule allowed him more time for visits home.
Boulton was not re-signed by the Thrashers following their final season in Atlanta and move to Canada. He signed a two-year deal with the Devils. He has been a scratch for each playoff game, but appeared in 51 regular-season games continuing his enforcer role.
“My role is the same as always, to be a physical presence,” Boulton said. “It’s tough not playing, but I’ve got to stay ready. We’ve been fortunate to stay healthy, but you never know when it’s your turn.”
Boulton kept his home in Atlanta, but his wife and home-schooled children joined him in New Jersey in December. It gave him the treat of waking with his children jumping on his bed in excitement following last week’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over the Rangers.
Despite their best efforts in Atlanta, the former Thrashers are thankful for the next chapter of their careers. Although they cautioned there is one more step forward to take, they can look back and reflect on from where they came.
“This is an organization that is used to winning,” Boulton said of the Devils, who have won three Stanley Cups. “We didn’t really have that in Atlanta. We had good teams and we came close, but there is a big difference here with the players and management. Atlanta was trying to get there. These guys are used to being there.”