Editor's Note: This kind of qualitative analysis is not only well done, but deserves to be on the front page.
Ilya Kovalchuk has struggled scoring goals ever since coming to New Jersey. His shooting percentage in New Jersey is well below his career average. In cursory glances at other players in Kovalchuk's class as pure goal scorers who changed teams mid-career - Selanne, Hull, Esposito, Bure, etc. - I can find no real comparable. Is Kovalchuk doomed to shoot around 10% as a Devil? Is there something we're missing?
I decided to look at video of all of Kovalchuk's even-strength goals as a Thrasher from the 08-09 and 09-10 seasons. I was looking for four things - was the goal scored off the rush, or as a result of sustained pressure? Was the goal a wrist shot, slap shot, tip-in, or what? Was it a one-timer or not? And lastly, was the goal scored off a backup goaltender or a starting goaltender? I think the last question is important. I didn't really define 'backup' - for instance, Kovalchuk scored one goal off JS Giguere, then one off Jonas Hiller, but I called them both starters. However, I called Vesa Toskala a backup. That was somewhat arbitrary, but being rigorous would only change 2 or 3 characterizations at most.
Anyway, here's the chart:
I hope that shows up well - it may be a tad small. Anyway, the results are pretty clear - Kovalchuk scores more goals off the rush than off sustained pressure. Now this could be for a number of reasons. First off, it could be just chance - 1½ years worth of even strength goals isn't very many. Second, it could be because Atlanta in general was a horrendous possession team - they didn't get many offensive zone faceoffs, and what faceoffs they did get, they tried to hand to Kovalchuk - he was an Atlanta leader in zone start. Third, most NHL players' stats may look like this, but I don't think I am going to try to break down all of their numbers; I may be drawing incorrect conclusions from data that is entirely consistent with what's expected.
The other alarming trend is the number of goals he scored against backup goalies - more than a third of his goals were against non-starters. I don't think we would see that if we examined any Devils' player with 20 goals over this span; the Devils usually face starting goaltenders. Were Kovalchuk's goal and shooting % numbers inflated because of the number of backup goaltenders he faced? How large a drop-off should we expect now that he isn't seeing Patrick Lalime every time he plays Buffalo?
Still, we're left with a kind of conundrum here - Kovalchuk is not a good defensive player, and yet it appears from this data that he might be better suited being given defensive zone starts. Furthermore, his bad defense may be why in part he scores so many goals off the rush, so fixing his defense may impair his offense. It's up to MacLean and the coaching staff to get Kovalchuk working to his full potential - I think it's a good start to be using Zubrus on that line instead of Zajac.