When New Jersey acquired Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010, he presented an interesting challenge. For most of his career, Kovalchuk only needed to put the puck in the net. The Thrashers didn't require him to play much defense, and he was known for slacking off in the defensive end.
New Jersey required him to become a capable two-way forward. He struggled with it at first, and the problem only grew worse when John MacLean took over.
MacLean moved Kovalchuk to right wing, a position he never played, in order to play him with both Travis Zajac and Zach Parise. Despite voicing his objection, Kovalchuk made the change. It was a disaster. He posted just 29 points (14g, 15a) and never looked comfortable. That apparently rang true off the ice, as Kovalchuk contemplated asking for a trade from the organization.
In an interview with Sovetsky Sports (it's in Russian, credit Puck Daddy for the translation), Kovalchuk's mother revealed that her son was close to making that request.
"Ilya was taking it very hard. But I kept telling him 'You need to weather it, son. Prove everything on the ice.' And then there was such a time when he was ready to ask New Jersey for a trade. He didn't voice it loud, but that decision was becoming ripe. He told me on the phone: 'That's it. I am going to the general manager.' [And I said] 'What are you doing, wait! So much was done to get your contract with the Devils approved. And now you will quit?'"
After Jacques Lemaire took over, that sentiment evaporated. Kovalchuk started to play within the Devils system, and Lemaire eventually trusted him in his own end. He exploded in the second half, recording 31 points and six game-winning scores.
This season, that transition continued. With a new coach and a new system, Kovalchuk once again took steps toward becoming a two-way player. He earned more trust under Pete DeBoer, and eventually played on the penalty kill.
"This guy has made a commitment in a lot of different areas," DeBoer told Mark Everson of The New York Post. "He changed positions. He’s playing a 200-foot game, killing penalties. He’s getting rewards like we told him he would. You see the sacrificing he’s made. You need rewards for that."
The reward now stands four games away. Kovalchuk's maturation, both on and off the ice, has made him a team leader in the locker room. He led the charge to buy the "Swarm It Up" apparel, and has been a major factor all season long. It's his presence that's helped New Jersey make it this far.
If they can win just four more games, Kovalchuk will earn his ultimate reward - his first Stanley Cup championship.