BOSTON -- The Ilya Kovalchuk Express finally escaped the doldrums of always-empty Phillips Arena in Atlanta on Thursday night.
Unfortunately for the Russian superstar, after all the rumors turned to an actual official trade, his next destination is another city -- Newark, N.J. -- where he'll skate in front of mostly empty seats. So much for the rumor that he only wanted to go to a warm-weather city.
The deal was unfortunate for the Boston Bruins too, because at the same time that the New Jersey Devils and Atlanta Thrashers were announcing their deal, Boston was in the midst of squandering a two-goal lead en route to a 3-2 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens despite a 47-25 shot advantage.
The point in the standings moved the Bruins into an 11th-place tie, but Boston again proved that putting the puck in the back of the net is a more arduous task than convincing Atlanta to support the second coming of an NHL franchise in a nontraditional hockey market.
Boston's failed shooting exhibition against the Canadiens came on the heels of the Bruins outshooting Washington 42-26 in a 4-1 loss Tuesday night. The Bruins, who are last in the NHL in scoring, have outshot their opponents in seven straight games, yet all they have to show for it are five regulation losses and two shootout defeats.
Insert a player of Kovalchuk's caliber into the Bruins lineup and that wouldn't happen even if Ken Dryden, let alone Jaroslav Halak, was in goal. Center Marc Savard, who played with Kovalchuk in Atlanta, commended the pickup by New Jersey. Then he diplomatically answered a question about whether the Bruins needed Kovalchuk, or if they now need to find someone else from another organization to get their offensive motor running.
"Who knows? Like I said, right here is what we've got right now. That's up to management. I've got a couple years before I get into management," Savard said. "We've just got to keep trying and if someone comes in here, hopefully he's a hell of a player and he can score some goals. So until that happens, we've just got to keep going with what we've got."
That was the opinion of most of the players after the team's ninth straight game without a win (0-7-2).
"Kovy's a great hockey player," said forward Mark Recchi, "but he's not here, so we can't worry about it. I don't even know how much we were in the running or whatever. I don't concern myself with that too much.
"We talked about it yesterday. We have to focus on what we do here and the players we have in this dressing room. If you start thinking about other things, it's going to go south and we don't want it to go south here. We believe in each other.
"We want 27 games to get ourselves in the playoffs and stick together through this. If [management does] something, they do something. If they don't, this is what it is here; we're going to try to get through it."
No matter how much the Bruins tap-dance around it, a sniper like Kovalchuk would make their offense do a 180-degree turn. While general manager Peter Chiarelli acknowledged on the team's flagship station 98.5 The Sports Hub on Thursday that he was no longer in pursuit of Kovalchuk (without actually naming him), there were murmurs until the end about surprise teams getting involved. There must have been opportunities to make an offer at least comparable to what New Jersey surrendered.
In Bruins terms, the Devils' package of Johnny Oduya, Nik Bergfors, a 2010 first-round pick and prospect Patrice Cormier probably would have looked like this: defenseman Dennis Wideman (who obviously has taken a step back this year), forward Blake Wheeler (who has yet to establish second-line status), the pick and a prospect (maybe last year's first-rounder, Jordan Caron, or '08 second-rounder Max Sauve).
Of course, Kovalchuk is just a rental, and Chiarelli's plan during the four years of his contract extension, which starts next season, doesn't include that type of risk. However, there had better be something up Chiarelli's sleeve between now and the March 3 trade deadline. Assuming Boston is going to stick to its plan and be a buyer rather than a seller (which is an arguable decision), it has to come to terms with the fact that the current players just aren't going to score at the rate that was projected (or maybe ever, by the looks of it).
If that means renting Ray Whitney from Carolina or Raffi Torres from Columbus -- two guys who are always in the rumor mill -- then Chiarelli has to get it done. Or maybe he has to take a look at some guys who aren't always in everyone's trade-deadline stories.
Columbus' R.J. Umberger wouldn't be a rental and he can score and play with the edge the Bruins are so enamored with. Redirecting focus to the back end for a blueliner that could add some pop, and improve the breakouts, wouldn't be a bad idea if the market for forwards isn't to Chiarelli's liking.
Again, it's debatable whether the Bruins should be looking to trade for now, or instead selling off some of their future unrestricted free agents to build a bank of prospects and draft picks that will set them up for the rest of the decade (if they choose the right potential stars). If making the playoffs is the sole goal at this point, then regardless what the players say in public, the team as presently constituted is absolutely not talented enough and doesn't have the potential to be much better.
Since Day One of this season, the Bruins' players and coaches have talked about not comparing this season to last. So let's just look at this season. The first 55 games tell us the Bruins cannot score. The price for Kovalchuk might have been too high in Chiarelli's mind, but he has to find someone, anyone, that can be brought in for a price he likes, or this team won't be in the tournament come mid-April.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.