Defending Ilya Kovalchuk

By the title you can guess what this article is about.  Defending Ilya Kovalchuk.   

Despite the Devils injury issues, bloated contracts (that can't be traded) and the utilization of half of the Albany Devils defensive unit,  many fans and media members have pointed to Kovy's style of play, his past history with Atlanta, etc. as the reasons for the Devils struggles. 

This has been a player who has been criticized when he laughs after a win, when he has too many shots on goal, when he doesn't have enough shots on goal, etc.   It's also his fault that the Devils have cap troubles.  Please pay no attention to the $11MM third line (Brian Rolston/David Clarkson/Dainius Zubrus) that can't generate a scoring chance and the fact that Kovy's cap hit is $6.66MM which is 25th in the league. 

With a $100MM target on his back Ilya Kovalchuk has become an easy mark for that type of criticism.  (Is it legally mandated that the $100MM contract is in each game summary/article about the Devils?) Some of it deserved, most of it not.  He is the Alex Rodriguez of the Devils.  Everyone likes to drag him down as the cause of all of the team's problems when they are losing, but will gladly jump up to cheer and express awe when he makes an amazing play.  

Kovalchuk now has the task of trying to be the 'man' on a team that is not really his, that is struggling and that doesn't have all the right pieces.  For him, this is like Atlanta Part Deux just with a few more fans, higher salaried veterans and much larger microscope analyzing his play.


It's evident that Kovalchuk hasn't been able to find the right mix of linemates and scoring rhythm since coming to New Jersey. So what am I looking to defend for Kovalchuk?    I look at some popular 'media' views of Kovalchuk after the jump.  They are the ideas that  Kovalchuk doesn't make players around him better and that the Devils don't have the right players to fit Kovalchuk's style and that is why his production is down.    More after the jump.

 

Kovalchuk doesn't make players around him better.

One of the main fallacies promoted by members of the media is that Ilya Kovalchuk is not a player who makes others better and is not a team player. It's even claimed that he stifles the production of others.   I imagine they take old articles about A-Rod and just substituted the names.

I was curious about who his linemates were the past few seasons in Atlanta because of some claims that he often played with elite players and needs to play with similar type players in New Jersey. Here are the primary linemates Kovalchuk had while he was a Thrasher in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 and their individual Goals Versus Threshold ratings with and without Kovalchuk. WK is for ‘With Kovalchuk' and WOK is for ‘Without Kovalchuk'.

 

  WK WOK
  2009-2010 2008-2009
Maxim Afinogenov 6.9 1.3
Nik Antropov 12.5 9.7
  2008-2009 2009-2010
Bryan Little 6 2
Todd White 11 0.4
G-A-Pts G-A-Pts
Maxim Afinogenov 24-37-61 16-32-48*
Nik Antropov 24-43-67 28-31-59
 
Bryan Little 31-20-51 13-21-34
Todd White 22-51-73 7-19-26
*-For last 104 games

In 2009-2010 while in Atlanta he helped rejuvinate Maxim Afinogenov's career (he is now in the KHL) and his play with Nik Antropov (who moved from RW to play with him) helped Atlanta to jump out to a very good record in 2009-2010.  Was having Nik Antropov (a pass first center) the key?   Possibly as the fact Kovy and Antropov were on the ice for a significant amount of time together at even strength (almost 60%) per DobblerHockey.com

Frequency Line Combination
34.88% AFINOGENOV/ANTROPOV/KOVALCHUK
24.06% ANTROPOV/KOVALCHUK/LITTLE

In 2008-2009 his linemates were 20 year old Bryan Little and 33 year old Todd White. While Little is still young his production did regress without Kovalchuk. White's production fell off a cliff, he was traded to the New York Rangers for Donald Brashear and has been twice waived this year by the Rangers. How exactly did Kovalchuk not make those players better?   He is not a play making center, so there is limited amounts of how much he can increase another's play.  But producing as he did the past few years, with a few journeymen, young players and at best a good second line center show that he can help raise the production of those around him. 


The Devils don't have the right players to fit Kovalchuk's style and that is why he isn't scoring enough.

There is the idea that he needs to play with Player Type X and Player Type Y to be successful. Statements like 'he needs a elite play-making center' are often thrown around but his past linemates have shown that this isn't truly necessary. I bring this up as it relates to the often discussed topic of finding the right 'type' of player to be linemates with. (Unless you think Kovy can only prosper with Antropov on his side.) Many recent posts on this site (a fantastic assessment of Kovy's even strength goals by user Triumph44 how he scored those goals by dr(d)evil and a call for Kovy to play with better players by David Fine) have focused on Kovalchuk past production and tries to figure out what might work in the future. 

If anything the Devils don't have the right defenseman to fit any style that lends itself to scoring.

I think it's evident that what Kovalchuk, and more importantly the team, needs are defensemen who can contribute more offensively. Last year, before he came to the Devils, Kovalchuk scored 58 points in 49 games, I think partly because of the offensive abilities of his defense.  To further illustrate this, compare the offensive GVT of the Thrashers defensive four with the two Devils who were able to post positive offensive GVTs last year.

Thrashers

Games Played

oGVT

dGVT

GVT

Tobias Enstrom

82

7.3

1.6

8.9

Pavel Kubina

76

4.8

2.8

7.6

Ron Hainsey

80

2.6

2.2

4.8

Zach Bogosian

81

2.3

0.1

2.3

Devils

Games Played

oGVT

dGVT

GVT

Andy Greene

78

4.4

6.6

11

Paul Martin

22

1.6

3

4.5

Last year, while lacking in overall defensive stability, the Thrashers defensemen had much more of an offensive impact than anyone on the Devils with the exception of Andy Greene who played great on both offense and defense.  Don't believe me? In case you are unfamiliar with any of these players here are the scouting reports on each of the Atlanta defensemen, per SBNation's player pages.

Pavel Kubina-Has good size and is very strong. Possesses a terrific shot from the point and can be a solid point producer. Can also log plenty of minutes.

Tobias Enstrom-Possesses all the tools needed to run a good power play: Skating, passing skills, hockey sense and a decent shot. Is a smart defender.

Zach Bogosian-Has great mobility. Owns a huge shot from the point and sound offensive ability. Is very aggressive and capable of shutting down opposing forwards.

Ron Hainsley-Has great mobility, size and reach. Can play on either side of the ice. Displays plenty of offensive ability. Is capable of logging a ton of minutes.

The Devils currently have one, maybe two players who might meet the offensive potential of the defensemen to which Kovalchuk was accustomed. 

To take a further look at this I have broken out those goals that defensemen contributed on and embedded them separately below. All of the goals were even-strength, I omitted empty netters and of course NHL.com didn't have all the videos, but take a look at what seems to be video of a completely different Kovalchuk.

Goal Scorer Primary Assist Secondary Assist Link
KOVALCHUK(1) B.LITTLE(1) P.KUBINA(1) Link
KOVALCHUK(14) T.ENSTROM(15) AFINOGENOV(13) Link
KOVALCHUK(16) AFINOGENOV(15) T.ENSTROM(17) Link
KOVALCHUK(18) T.ENSTROM(21) P.KUBINA(12) Link
KOVALCHUK(20) R.HAINSEY(7) AFINOGENOV(19) Link
KOVALCHUK(21) AFINOGENOV(21) ANTROPOV(23) Link
KOVALCHUK(22) N.ANTROPOV(24) Z.BOGOSIAN(8) Link
KOVALCHUK(23) REASONER(10) ENSTROM(27) Link
KOVALCHUK(24) ANTROPOV(25) BOGOSIAN(9) Link

 

From cross ice passes to taking the puck deep into the offensive zone the defensive unit helped put Kovalchuk in the right position to be effective. There were even some nice give and go's.  In NJ he and his linemates are often playing a 3 or 4 on 5 game at even strength since the opposition has little respect for our defensemen's offensive ability. That takes us back to what many of us thought about during the offseason. The Devils need defensemen who can move the puck into the offensive zone.

Now there is good news and bad news on this front. The good: In recent drafts the Devils have started to invest draft picks heavily on defensemen with two way skills. Jon Merrill, Brandon Burlon, Alexander Urbom, Curtis Gedig and others give the Devils enough depth in the future to fill this need. Since Kovalchuk has 14.75 more years here, help is on it's way.  The bad: All of the players mentioned are not helping the team this year.
 
Once Matt Taormina returns there should be some more offensive help available. Of Kovalchuk's goals this year, excluding yesterday's 1st period goal, Taormina has had the primary assist on two of them, Tallinder the primary on another and Corrente initiating the shot that allowed Zubrus to kick a blind pass to Kovy in the slot. 

Goal Scorer Primary Assist Secondary Assist
17 I.KOVALCHUK(1) 20 M.TAORMINA(1) LANGENBRUNNER
17 I.KOVALCHUK(2) 20 M.TAORMINA(2) 22 M.CORRENTE(1)
17 I.KOVALCHUK(3) 8 D.ZUBRUS(5) 22 M.CORRENTE(2)
17 I.KOVALCHUK(4) 7 H.TALLINDER(3) 26 P.ELIAS(9)

Henrik Tallinder, who could also help, has been utilized on a defensive pairing with Colin White, often matched against the other teams top line so he hasn’t seen that much time in offensive situations. Taormina's return will also push Andy Greene to (hopefully) play with Volchenkov. That would give Greene the Devils other offensively minded defensemen a bit more freedom and allow A-Train to not be forced to carry a random AHL defenseman on his back for 18 minutes a night.  
 
Salmela is a wildcard this year as he recovers from ACL surgery, so it is hard to count on him.   That said, many people who complained that Salmela should have made a bigger impact on a team like Atlanta should realize the wealth of young talent that Atlanta has on their blue line was probably one of the reasons for Salmela's limited play.

Outside that there is a free agent option out there, that can help the blueline out on the power play. It's not pretty, cap space will be needed to be cleared and he might be holding out for a multi-year deal but Marc-Andre Bergeron is still available. Ok, is he the ultimate fix? No. But if the team can get 12 minutes of 4th line/PP time out of him, I would rather see him on the ice than a number of current Devils.

But once again the $100MM dilemma is finding the right linemates for Kovalchuk now. Are they here? While he looked OK with Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner yesterday I still don't see that as a short or long term solution.  Could David Clarkson be the right winger for him, possibly with Jacob Josefson as their center?    In Albany?  Are Adam Henrique and Vladimir Zharkov currently gaining chemistry themselves so that this year or next year they are lined up with Kovalchuk.

I don't have the answers, but I can say that Kovalchuk doesn't need all world players to be productive.  What he needs is a consistent group to work with and some help from the blueline so he doesn't constantly have 3 guys swarming him when he is in the offensive zone.  

Now it's your turn.  Am I being a Kovalpologist?   Have any ideas on who his ideal linemates might be?  (no trade ideas, let's deal with the current roster)   Thanks for reading and sound off below.

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