Ilya Kovalchuk After 15 Games as a Devil: An Analysis

On February 4, 2010, Lou Lamoriello pulled the trigger on a big deal that sent shockwaves through the Eastern Conference.  The New Jersey Devils traded rookie winger Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect center Patrice Cormier, and their first and second round picks in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft to the Atlanta Thrashers. The Devils re-acquired defenseman Anssi Salmela, Atlanta's second round pick in the 2010 draft, and winger Ilya Kovalchuk. 

Of course, the big name in the deal is Ilya Kovalchuk.  Since coming into the league in 2001, he's been the franchise player for Atlanta. The first superstar the team has had, sticking out the last decade through thick and thin.  In Atlanta, he had played 594 games, scored 328 goals (115 on the power play, 40 game winners), added 287 assists (128 on the power play), took 429 minutes in penalties, ended up as a -78 overall, averaged 21:23 per game, and has taken 2,178 shots - resulting in an Atlanta-career shooting percentage of 15.31%.  You cannot reasonably ask for much more than what Kovalchuk has done in terms of offensive production.  He was the star in Atlanta and he did just that.

In terms of talent, he's like no other Devil forward that I can immediately recall off the top of my head. He's big (6'3", 220 lbs.), he's strong on the puck, he's swift, he has a second gear when he has the space to skate, and his shot - both wristers and slapshots - are fantastic. The only real knock on him is his defending, but quite frankly, if there's any team who can cover him there or help him learn, it's the New Jersey Devils.

With such big numbers and his pedigree as a player come large expectations.  Now that the he has played 15 games with the Devils, it is a good time as any to look at how he has played so far.  


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2009 - Ilya Kovalchuk 15 5 7 12 3 8 1 0 1 0 64 7.8

The Team Results Since the Trade

10 Games prior to Kovalchuk Trade: 3-6-1; 16 goals for (1.6/game); shutout 3 times

February since Kovalchuk Trade: 2-3-1; 19 goals for (1.9/game); not shutout once

March with Kovalchuk so far: 5-3-1; 27 goals for (3.0/game); shutout once

When the Devils made the trade, they were in the middle of a slump.  The offense was suffering, the defense was exploited, and Martin Brodeur could do only so much.  I'm sure that when the trade was made that Kovalchuk coming to the team would spark the team to turn it around.  Or at least improve their offense.

Well, that didn't really happen.  The trade itself brought in a lot of attention but it alone did not turn around the team. The Devils finished the month of February with a record of 2-3-1 and have only begun to turn that around with a current March record of 5-3.  I believe that has more to do with the team being read the riot act by the coaches and the player's own meeting after the 2-0 loss to Edmonton, reported by Tom Gulitti.   Since that game, the Devils have looked far better on the ice as well as on the scoreboard.    I don't know about you, but I'm not surprised or disappointed by that Kovalchuk's arrival didn't change the Devils' fortunes. I even said on the night Kovalchuk has been traded that he alone wouldn't change everything.  Still, now that the team has won some games recently, there has to be more confidence in the locker room and that benefits all the Devils.

Ilya Kovalchuk's Stats as a New Jersey Devil

I think stats are generally important. They can give us an idea of how well a player.  They are a measurable used for comparative purposes and setting expectations.  They identify what a player does on the ice without requiring one to watch them play.  Just by breaking down his 15 games by month shows that the stats suggest that he is settling in with his new team more and more:

Kovalchuk_devils_stats_in_february_2010_medium

Kovalchuk_devils_stats_in_march_18_2010_medium

Just by the number of shifts alone you notice that his ice time drops in recent games because he's been given fewer shifts.  I don't think it's because he's played poorly; but rather Lemaire and the staff wanted an extended look at what he could do on the ice in February; see who he meshes with on the top six (seems like Elias and Zubrus are the best fits now); determine if he can forecheck (yes); and long shifts on the power play (which hasn't worked out well).  Now that they have a better idea of what he can do, he doesn't need as many shifts per game.

Among the numbers, the power play is the only area where he's made the smallest impact in games (despite 1 PPG, 2 PPA), which is a disappointment.  No, he's not the root cause of the Devils' power play struggles. But he hasn't produced enough nor has he done enough to make the power play threatening to justify shifts that last for the entire man advantage.  For background, I asked The Falconer of Bird Watchers Anonymous what he did on the power play in Atlanta:

Kovalchuk was exclusively used on the left point after his rookie year, he usually played the full 2 minutes. He annually led all Forwards in PP TOI. He was successful in terms of racking up a lot of PP goals, but he also got a TON of PP ice time. His PP pts/TOI per 60 minutes was in the top 10% of all forwards if I remember correctly. The problem in Atlanta is that every team knew we wanted Kovy to shoot and they would just camp out in his lane. Kovy is also picky and will not attempt a one-timer unless the pass is just so. The Thrashers Shots per PP were lower than most teams because of his selectivity. 

Unfortunately, some of that has carried over to New Jersey.  I'd like to see him used on the off-wing so he can still utilize his shot but not act as the feature player in an umbrella. Perhaps Lemaire is willing to give it a shot? Kovalchuk was on the wing on the first power play against Toronto on Thursday.  Alas, it led to nothing and he went back to the point for later power plays.  I'd like to see more of it if only to provide different looks on the man advantage.  Again, he isn't the root cause of the problem, I'd blame the lack of  consistent identity and team mentality on the power play well before blaming one player, much less Kovalchuk.  But he hasn't been part of the solution on the power play.

Still, his production has been pretty good with 12 points in 15 games.  Yes, I know that it's not a point per game pace and that he only has 5 goals.  Yet, he hasn't been invisible in even one of his 15 games, his talent is apparent, and most of all he isn't the key forward on this Devils team. He doesn't have to be constantly scoring for the team to succeed, which I'm sure is rather new to him and hard for some fans to grasp.  Do we want him to score? Sure! But that doesn't mean he is only a success in New Jersey if he's dominating on the ice.  How he plays with his teammates and whether it contributes to wins are far more important, especially at this point in the season.

I do think his numbers will improve, however, based on this stat: his shooting percentage.  Kovalchuk's shooting percentage in Atlanta throughout a whole season has never been lower than 12%. In Atlanta this season, he was at 17.4%, which is ridiculously good. His current shooting percentage as a Devil is 7.8%, well below any of his seasons in Atlanta.  If you needed a number to represent the issues both personal and tactical affecting him, there it is.  Over time, that shooting percentage is going to regress to the mean, and while I'm not certain what that would be, it will be far better than 7.8%. Keep that in mind if you're not happy with his current points.   Until that improves, along with a number of other factors, his production is going to be negatively affected.

The Personal Issues Arising from the Trade

Normally, I avoid looking into a player's personal life. I feel their life is just that: theirs.  I generally have no interest int hat sort of thing. However, no complete look into Kovalchuk's performance as a Devil so far can be made without considering the personal implications of the move as it happened.  Maybe it's just me, but they're startling.

Put yourself in Kovalchuk's shoes.  Talks of an extension in Atlanta broke down and you're traded for the first time in your NHL career. That's a whole new set of teammates to learn, a whole new coach to play for, a new organization to represent, an organization that and a whole lot of fans expecting the goal scoring from Atlanta to continue in New Jersey.  Just fitting in on a basic level - communication, getting to know players - is difficult enough as-is.  Throw in the Olympic break coming up in a few weeks where you're expected to succeed as part of a very strong Russian team.

On top of that, consider that you're in a hotel room in New Jersey while your wife (who is expecting a third child soon), your family, your house, and whatever else you've been familiar with for the last seven and a half years, is still down south while you're in New Jersey to do your job.  The two weeks that could have been spent getting set up in New Jersey are taken up by the Olympics. While always proud to represent Russia in international competition; sparkling at the 2008 and 2009 World Championships where upon you won gold and the MVP of the 2009 tourney. The Olympics go completely awry as Russia suffers it's worst finish ever, and the break doesn't lead to the Devils playing particularly well right afterward.

To me, how can this not affect a player mentally and emotionally?  You can sit there and say that he makes X amount of money and he's a professional and he needs to deal with the problems like anyone else, but that doesn't mean he isn't human.  It's additional pressure (among other things) and it isn't at all unreasonable to think that it has had some affect on his play.  These aren't excuses, this is reality for the player.  After all, the personal situation were brought up in this post by Rich Chere back on February 12, where Kovalchuk himself admits to not playing up to expectations. Honestly, from my standpoint, I'm not sure if that's even reasonable given the circumstances; especially considering the team was struggling before he came to New Jersey.

I think that speaks well of his character, which I don't think gets enough credit.  Not once has he ever complained in public about his coach, his management, or his teammate as the Thrashers repeatedly missed the postseason.  Not once he demanded that someone leave the team or he walks. In fact, he never asked to leave Atlanta; Atlanta made the choice to trade him - they could have kept him there for the rest of this season. The decision wasn't easy, though, based on what The Falconer told me about how Kovalchuk was regarded in Atlanta:

Kovy never says anything negative about anyone that I know of. Then again, he's also media shy and in Atlanta the media barely pays attention to hockey -- so he was never really pressed to talk. To my knowledge he's never demanded anything - -other than a cap maximum extension. By all accounts Kovy is a nice guy.

 Waddell thought of Kovy like a son and wanted to keep him badly. But ownership didn't want to go as high as $10 million per season and Waddell basically cajoled them into going that far in hopes of striking a deal.

While I can't possibly know how he interacts with his new teammates in the locker room, I would think his easy-going personal nature and competitiveness on-ice hasn't hurt him from interacting with his new teammates and his new bosses, where the expectation is success every season. To put it plainly, Lou probably doesn't even think about acquiring Kovalchuk, much less retaining him, if he had any major character issues that could disrupt the team. 

Fortunately, the personal side to Kovalchuk looks to be less tumultuous going forward.  Kovalchuk now has an apartment in Hoboken per Dan Rosen of NHL.com, the Olympics have long since been over, and as Tom Gulitti reported yesterday, he'll fly down to be with his wife for the birth of his third child.  Will all of this be a panacea for Kovalchuk, allowing him to come out firing in the next 12 games of the season?  Well, I don't know, but he's going to have a few less worries in his head, which can't hurt. At least from my standpoint as an outsider.

Fitting In is a Tactical Issue - Figuring Out a Role on the Team

Above the personal issues and the stats, and perhaps most important for the fans to understand, Kovalchuk is now on a team that is known for operating as a team, where every player has a role for their skill set and generally know who they will play with for at least this season, and the biggest expectation in this organization is to win. 

It's difficult to set expectations for a player if his role isn't clear and so far the Devils and Kovalchuk have been trying to figure that out in the last 15 games. What is clear is that Kovalchuk doesn't have to be main driver of the New Jersey offense; and that's a huge adjustment after being the dominant forward on Atlanta for so many seasons.  It's also a huge adjustment for fans who think that he scored in bunches in Atlanta so he must do the same in New Jersey.  Given that the main goal is winning, that means Kovalchuk has had to dial back some his aggression and the Devils have had to figure out how to utilize all of his strengths within their system.  That means implementing his skills in conjunction with players like Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and Dainius Zubrus - five Devils who have been with each other on the team for at least two seasons now.

Since coming to New Jersey, Kovalchuk has been thrown into playing various linemates and in various situations, with the intent to see how he performs. In retrospect, this may be seen as necessary.  Most of the Devils have played with each other for years, so they know what to expect.  Even the rookies and call ups have went through preseasonm, Kovalchuk basically has had to learn has he goes with every game. He's been given long shifts partially for this purpose; the coaches were essentially giving the players and Kovalchuk a crash course in how to perform with each other. 

This has led to some mixed success early.  For example, on his debut, he deferred to his teammates than taking the shot himself. He ended up with two assists in the game, but part of what makes him great - his shot - was hidden.  In the following two games, his teammates kept feeding him the puck for him to fire away - to no avail, but the team got a taste of how hard and how well Kovalchuk shoots. 

Like many things, it takes time and cooperation to solve these issues.  He's been with the team for 15 games, and since then, the team came together to end their slump - it wasn't all on Kovalchuk to break it.  But he was a part of it.  With each game going forward, the coaching staff is starting to realize how they want to utilize Kovalchuk.  In February, he got lots of long shifts, at least an average of 53 seconds per shift and an average of 23.3 per game.  Now that the Devils and Kovalchuk have gotten to know each other better, he's been getting fewer shifts in March while contributing to the team in various ways.

It's clear on the ice that he's definitely committed to his new coach, Jacques Lemaire.  From game-to-game observations, he's definitely listening to Lemaire and the coaching staff about what he needs to do differently in New Jersey. On Monday against Boston, Kovalchuk took the puck forward at nearly every chance regardless of how many defenders he had to challenge. Someone must have talked to him before Wednesday's game, where Kovalchuk would take the puck in but would look for a teammate for a pass to continue the attack.    In both games though, he looked far more in sync with his linemates than he would in, say, his second game where the plan apparently was to get him the puck to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more.   If you want a game to point to for a breakout, it'd be the March 12 game against Pittsburgh where he not only scored a goal, picked up two assists, and took 7 shots, but was on the ice at the end of the game defending - successfully, I might add - against the 6 Penguins on the ice.

Most recently, I'd like to point out Lemaire's comments after the 2-1 shootout loss to Toronto last night; Tom Gulitti reported the following quote:

 

Lemaire said tonight's game was the first since Kovalchuk joined the Devils that he did not play well.

"He's got great skills. He skates well," Lemaire said. "He didn't play a good game tonight, but it's no big deal. I feel that he skated hard every game. This was his first game that he could have done better, but I'm very pleased with what he's doing."

Even after what he described as a sub-optimal performance, Lemaire made a point of it to publicly say that he has been "very pleased" with what he has done so far as a Devil.  That's a great sign of how he's regarded by the team; and I think it's also a very positive sign that he is fitting in with the organization.

We often consider chemistry as linemates or defensive partners gelling with each other for success.  However, it has just as much to do with getting to know your teammates regardless of they are your linemates or not, understanding what the coaches want you to do on the ice, and handling the ins-and-outs of the new organization you're a part of.  From game to game, I've noticed different changes in what Kovalchuk does; the few examples I brought up reflect this as well.  Combining that with his general character, and what Lemaire thinks, I really think it's only a matter of time before his role is completely defined for Kovalchuk to thrive in it.  I wish I knew when it would happen, but it's something to keep in mind as the season winds down.

Overall - Kovalchuk has been OK, But There's Room for Improvement

Whereas some people will only focus on the stats, I think an honest look at the personal and tactical issues involving Kovalchuk along with the points shows that he's done pretty well overall.  Yes, he's had a big role in two shorthanded goals; but those were his only serious errors as a Devil. And he's scored a goal in those games, if you'll recall correctly. From where I sit, he hasn't disappeared from a game - he's always had done something that commands a fan's (or at least the opposition's) notice.    Has he been poor so far? No, and anyone who says he has been is someone with unrealistic expectations. (hat-tip: ILWT user Cherno77)  Is it enough going forward? No, he can do more and I think he will.  Hence, I would have to state Kovalchuk has room for improvement as a Devil.

I think there's good reason to believe that he'll improve. And not just because the Devils have focused mainly on the power play in Friday's practice, per Tom Gulitti's performance.  As he'll have fewer worries on a personal level soon enough and a clearer role on the team (with clearer expectations), he'll be more focused on the ice. This should allow him to make more of an impact going forward; and, of course, get more points.  Even if all you look at stats, you'd come away thinking that his shooting percentage has to improve as he didn't lose any talent in the last 15 games; an improvement there alone will lead to more goals.

I'd look at the last 15 games as a "growing period" for both sides: Kovalchuk as Devil and the Devils with Kovalchuk on their team. A "growing period" with 12 points and 64 shots on net in 15 games isn't anything to discount.   As that time passes, Kovalchuk will be a much more effective player on the ice.  Going into the playoffs, that's what I think we should hope and expect out of Kovalchuk - improvement over the last 15 games.

Big thanks to the Falconer at Bird Watchers Anonymous for some insight into Kovalchuk's performance in Atlanta.  Let me know what you think about Kovalchuk as a Devil in the comments. Are you pleased with his first 15 games as a Devil? Did this extended look at the player convince you of anything?  Are you concerned about the player going forward?   (P.S. As far as whether he'll want to stay in New Jersey or whether he should be offered a deal here, well, let's discuss that after the playoffs.  It's pointless to do so at this juncture.)

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