Ilya Kovalchuk was born April 15, 1983 in Tver, Russia. The 1st choice, 1st overall selection of the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Kovalchuk is the first Russian player to be taken first overall in NHL Entry Draft history.
An excellent skater with impressive speed, quickness and acceleration, Kovalchuk has outstanding puckhandling skills, scoring ability and plays a tough aggressive style of game.
Kovalchuk has had an impressive international career. He was a member of Russia's bronze medal Olympic team in 2002, was named the Best Player at the 2001 Under-18 World Championships, was a member of Team Russia at the 2001 World Junior Championships, led the Russian Under-18 team to the gold medal at the 2001 Under-18 World Championships while leading the tournament in scoring with 15 points in six games, played on the Russian team at the 2001 Under-20 World Championships, led the Russian Under-18 team to the gold medal at the 2000 Five Nations Cup, helped Russia capture the silver medal at the 2000 Under-18 World Championships, was a member of the gold-medal winning Russian squad at the Under-17 2000 World Hockey Challenge earning Best Forward honours and named the Best Forward at the 2000 Under-20 Five Nations tournament.
Prior to joining the Thrashers, Kovalchuk helped Spartak finish in first place in the Russian Division I League and led his team in points with 46 (28 goals, 18 assists) in 40 games.
In 2001-02 Kovalchuk made his NHL debut with Atlanta and teamed up with Calder Trophy winner Danny Heatley to become two of the most exciting young players in the game. The Tver, Russia native played in 65 games with the Thrashers and was on his way to the Calder Trophy before a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season. With 29 goals and 22 assists for 51 points, Kovalchuk finished second in team scoring and ranked second in overall rookie scoring behind his linemate Dany Heatley. Aside from his NHL debut with the Thrashers, Kovalchuk reprented Russia at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Kovalchuk continued his success during the 2002-03 season, surpassing the 35 goal mark and continuing to lead the Thrashers offence alongside Heatley until a car accident during the off-season sidelined Heatley for a good portion of the 2003-04 season. Fortunately, for Heatley he was able to resume his playing career shortly after the mid-season mark, however, the car accident would claim the life of Atlanta Thrasher forward Dan Snyder. With the uncertainty of Heatley's health at the start of the season and the loss of a teammate, Kovalchuk had added pressure to produce offensively, and produce he did. Kovalchuk had a career high 87 points, good enough for second in the NHL and added a career-high 41 goals, tying for the league lead with Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Columbus' Rick Nash, thus capturing his first Maurice Richard Trophy.
With the Thrashers failing to qualify for the post season, Kovalchuk made his World Championship debut with Russia at the 2004 tournament in Prague, Czech Republic and helped the club capture bronze in 2005. Kovalchuk was welcomed back to Team Russia in 2006 to represent his country in the 2006 Winter Olympics. Despite his offensive influence on the Russian team, Kovalchuk would return to Atlanta without a medal. Two years later, Kovalchuck returned to the World Championships and would not be disappointed. In the gold medal final of the tournament, he scored the tying goal and the game winning goal to give Russia its long-awaited gold medal.
With free agency looming in the summer of 2010, it became clear that the Thrashers were not going to be able to re-sign their star winger. After turning down a reported $101-million, 12-year deal from Atlanta that would have made him the NHL's highest paid player, Kovalchuk was traded along with defenseman Anssi Salmela to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and two draft picks.
In the summer of 2010, Kovalchuk was unquestionably the most high profile unrestricted free agent available. Rumors swirled that he would head to the west coast and join the Los Angeles Kings, or perhaps even return to Russia and suit up in the KHL. After weeks of speculation though, Kovalchuk decided to remain in New Jersey, signing an NHL record 17-year, $102 million dollar deal with the Devils.
In a surprising twist, just hours after the deal was announced, the NHL rejected the front-loaded contract because it "circumvented the NHL's salary cap" and Kovalchuk found himself again an unrestricted free agent. Finally, on September 4, the Devils and Kovalchuk came to terms on a contract deemed acceptable by the NHL. The deal was reportedly worth $100 million over 15 years.