Ilya Valeryevich Kovalchuk (born April 15, 1983) is a Russian professional ice hockey left winger, currently playing for the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League (NHL). Drafted first overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers, he began his NHL career in 2001–02 with the team and was nominated for the Calder Memorial Trophy as league rookie-of-the-year. He is a three-time NHL All-Star and won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-scorer in 2004 in a three-way tie with Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash. After eight seasons with the Thrashers, he was traded to the Devils in 2010.
Internationally, Kovalchuk has played for Russia in the IIHF World U18 Championships, World Junior Championships, World Championships, World Cup and Winter Olympics, highlighted by back-to-back gold medals in the 2008 and 2009 World Championships.
Kovalchuk played for Russian Super League club HC Spartak Moscow for two seasons before entering the NHL. Drafted by the Thrashers first overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, he became the first Russian to be drafted first overall in the NHL’s history. In club-level competition, Kovalchuk wore the number 17 as a tribute to Valeri Kharlamov, a Soviet superstar in the 1970s (Kovalchuk, however, wears 71 in international play).
Entering his NHL rookie season in 2001–02, Kovalchuk scored 51 points in 65 games, finishing second in voting to teammate Dany Heatley for the Calder Trophy as league rookie-of-the-year. Both were named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. After improving to 38 goals and 67 points in his second season, Kovalchuk scored 41 goals in 2003–04, making him a co-winner of the Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy after tying for the league lead in goals with Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames and Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He also added 46 assists for 87 points, tying him with Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche for second in the league that season, behind Martin St. Louis. Kovalchuk also participated in his first NHL All-Star Game in 2004.
Due to the 2004–05 NHL lockout, Kovalchuk returned to Russia, playing for both Ak Bars Kazan and Khimik Moscow Oblast of the Russian Superleague. After the lockout, Kovalchuk returned to the Thrashers and scored 52 times, tying him with rookie Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals for third in the league in scoring (behind Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks (56), and Jaromír Jágr of the New York Rangers (54)). He also tied his career-high of 46 assists for a career-high 98 points, leading the Thrashers in team scoring for the second consecutive season, while finishing eighth overall in league scoring. He also became the first Thrashers player to score 50 goals in a season.
In the 2006–07 NHL season, Kovalchuk’s point production dropped for the first time in his career. He finished with 42 goals and 34 assists for 76 points. During a game against the Nashville Predators during the season on January 11, 2006, Predators coach Barry Trotz accused Kovalchuk with “always play[ing] with an illegal stick.” Trotz had asked the referees to check Kovalchuk’s stick following a Thrashers goal, but claimed that Kovalchuk was able to switch his stick before the referees could check. Despite his drop in production on the season, Kovalchuk and the Thrashers qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Kovalchuk scored one goal and one assist in his NHL playoffs debut as the team lost in the opening round to the New York Rangers in four games.
In 2007–08, Kovalchuk scored two consecutive hat tricks in a loss to the Ottawa Senators and a win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 1 and 3, 2007, respectively. Later that season, on January 23, 2008, Kovalchuk was suspended for one game by the NHL for a hit from behind on New York Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsíval in a game a day prior. He finished the campaign with his second 52-goal season in three years, along with 35 assists for 87 points.
With the departure of Bobby Holik to the New Jersey Devils in the 2008 off-season, the Thrashers’ captaincy remained vacant for the first half of the 2008–09 season. Kovalchuk served as one of five alternate captains to start the season until the alternates collectively requested to general manager Don Waddell and coach John Anderson for Kovalchuk to take over the captaincy. Soon thereafter, on January 11, 2009, Kovalchuk was named Holik’s successor and the sixth team captain in Thrashers’ history during the team’s Casino Night charity event. The announcement came amidst speculation that the Thrashers were looking to trade Kovalchuk with his contract set to expire at the end of the following season. Kovalchuk completed his first season as team captain with 43 goals for his fifth consecutive 40-goal season and 91 points.
Near the beginning of the 2009–10 season, Kovalchuk scored the 300th and 301st goal of his NHL career in a 4-2 win during the St. Louis Blues‘ home opener on October 8, 2009. He was leading the league in goals several weeks into the season when he suffered a broken foot after blocking shot in a game against the San Jose Sharks on October 24.
In the final year of his contract, Kovalchuk and the Thrashers could not come to an agreement on an extension. Thrashers general manager Don Waddell reportedly offered 12-year, $101 million and seven-year, $70 million contracts, both of which Kovalchuk turned down. Rather than potentially losing him to unrestricted free agency in the off-season, Kovalchuk was traded on February 4, 2010, to the New Jersey Devils. Atlanta received defenceman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors and junior prospect Patrice Cormier, and a first round selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft in exchange for Kovalchuk and defenceman Anssi Salmela; the teams also traded second round selections in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Kovalchuk recorded two assists the following day in his Devils’ debut, a 4–3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 5.
Kovalchuk won his first medals with Russia in a major international event at the IIHF World U18 Championships, earning silver and gold medals in 2000 and 2001, respectively. He also competed for Russia at the World Junior Championships in 2001, but finished in seventh.
The following year, Kovalchuk made his senior international debut with Russia at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, during his rookie NHL season with the Atlanta Thrashers. He recorded three points in six games to help Russia to a bronze medal finish. He then made his World Championships debut in 2003, but failed to medal.
Kovalchuk made his second straight Winter Olympics appearance in 2006 in Turin. He had a four-goal game on February 19 in a 9–2 win over Latvia, but returned to Atlanta without a medal, losing in the bronze medal game.
In 2008 Kovalchuk played in the IIHF World Championship, held in Quebec City, Canada. He scored his only two goals of the tournament in the gold medal game against Team Canada – once to force the game into overtime, then the game-winner to give Russia the championship. The following year, he led Russia to a second straight gold medal over Canada in the 2009 IIHF World Championship and was named tournament MVP.