All-World Shooter, But Is He An Impact Player? Ilya Kovalchuk's 5-on-5 On-Ice Impact from 2007-2010

In recent days, I've turned my focus from Paul Martin to Ilya Kovalchuk, the other big unrestricted free agent (UFA) coming out of New Jersey this summer.  In Tuesday's look at the team's PDO, which is the summation of on-ice even strength shooting percentage and on-ice even strength save percentage, I noted that Ilya Kovalchuk has maintained a high on-ice even strength shooting percentage across the last three seasons.   At this point, let me make a correction. In that post, I stated he maintained an on-ice even strength shooting percentage of at least 12%; but that was the result of a rounding error - it was only 11.97% in 2009-10.  

Nevertheless, I found that to be impressive.  On Wednesday, I looked at goals versus threshold (GVT), a stat developed by Tom Awad to measure a player's contribution to his team.   Kovalchuk's GVT was among the top forwards in the league, when combining both his time in Atlanta and New Jersey last season. More amazingly was not only contributed above replacement level defensively, but more so than Evgeni Malkin.  So much for the canard that "Kovalchuk can't defend."

Earlier today over at the Behind the Net blog, Gabe Desjardens made this point about Kovalchuk's shooting skills after analyzing even and odd shots taken after the lockout:

Only six forwards were able to exceed their expected shooting percentage by 1.5 standard deviations in both even and odd shots: Ilya Kovalchuk, Daniel Alfredsson, Alexander Semin, Marian Gaborik, Jason Spezza and Nathan Horton.  I think Kovalchuk, and to a lesser extent, Horton, are the only players who show up in this list no matter how many different ways I put it together.  So if you ever want to credit a player with better shooting talent than anyone else, those are the only two guys who I'd have any confidence in.  Otherwise, a shooter is basically a shooter...

When the statistically astute Gabe Desjardens is confident that Kovalchuk really has been exemplary at taking shots, you can take it to the bank.  After all, his career shooting percentage stands at 14.8% and his worst season shooting percentage in his whole NHL career was 12%.  Considering he's usually good for 270-300 shots per season, it's no wonder he's been a goal scoring machine in the last decade not seen since the likes of Jay Pandolfo (that was a joke, feel free to chuckle).

So far, I believe I've established that Kovalchuk is a great shooter and has made significant contributions per GVT last season.  However, that doesn't answer the question of whether or not he has been an impact player.  That is, when he steps on the ice, what tends to happen on his teams?  Are they mostly positive changes?  Is his impact rank among the best in the league?

We can use on-ice and off-ice numbers to determine this.  Basically, this is what I did with many of the posts about Paul Martin last week. In this case, I've put together the 5-on-5 even strength on-ice and on-ice impact numbers from Behind the Net for not only Ilya Kovalchuk, but for all forwards who have played significant minutes in the last 3 seasons.   Surely, if he was, we should that he ranked fairly high in several categories over the past 3 seasons.  Probably the offensive ones, if nothing else. 

We know he's productive, we know he contributes, we know he's a great shooter.  Read on to find out about his on-ice impact.  As well as a quick little look at Zach Parise and Evgeni Malkin as comparison points.

Introductory Explanation

The Criteria: I pulled all the even strength, 5-on-5, numbers by season from Behind the Net for all forwards who have played at least 30 games and had a time on ice per 60 of 13.    In 2007-08, 103 forwards were filtered; in 2008-09, 102 were filtered out; and 138 met the mark in 2009-10.

The Comparable Stats:  On-ice shooting percentage and PDO are included as a measure of how the team performed in terms of percentages when they were on the ice.  On-ice save percentage was excluded; as per Tyler Dellow at mc79hockey, a skater isn't going to have much effect on it.

GF/60 stands for Goals For per 60 (minutes).  GA/60 stands for Goals Against per 60.  SF/60 stands for Shots For per 60.  SA/60 stands for Shots Against per 60.   The on-ice GF/60 would be GFON/60, for example.  The on-ice impact would be GFON IMPACT, which is GFOFF/60 minus GFON/60.    For Goals and Shots For per 60, positive on-ice impact will be a negative value; whereas Goals and Shots Against per 60, positive on-ice impact will be a positive value.

Adj CORSI/60 stands for adjusted CORSI per 60.   CORSI is the total of shot attempts both for and against; shot attempts for your team adds to CORSI, shot attempts by the opponent reduces CORSI.   If a player starts in the offensive zone more often than in the defensive zone, CORSI is adjusted lower to account for the player starting in an attacking position on the ice - which makes earning CORSI easier.  If the player is in the defensive zone, CORSI is adjusted higher as the player is starting in a defending position - which makes earning CORSI harder.   Adjusted CORSI/60 takes this into account; that is the adjustment.  Thanks to Derek Zona for explaining the calculation to me.

The Context Stats:  Time on ice per 60 represents how much the player has been on the ice for 5-on-5 hockey.

QUALCOMP and QUALTEAM represent the quality of competition and quality of teammates, respectively.  Gabe has an explanation of both in his FAQ. Basically, a higher QUALCOMP means tougher competition and a higher QUALTEAM means better performing teammates.  I am using QUALCOMP as the first tie breaker in the rankings - so if a player has the exact same number for a stat, I gave the higher rank to the player who faced tougher competition.

# TOP 30 RANKS simply means the number of times the player finished in the top 30 among the forwards evaluated across all stats.   While some players truly stand out in particular situations, the idea is to point out who has made a solid impact across the board when they go on the ice.  I ultimately have sorted all the charts by this value (then by QUALCOMP) to emphasize who really has been a total impact player.  In the following charts, a cell colored in orange means that the value or rank is in the top 30.   Granted, the rank itself should say all, but the color helps it stick out.  A little something for the visually inclined.

Incidentally, Kovalchuk's lines on the total charts are highlighted in blue for easy finding.

Why Focus on the Regular Season?  The larger population size of games played gives a more accurate measure of a player's impact on their team when they step on the ice.  The effect of hot streaks, slumps, etc. are mitigated across whole seasons.  Playoffs feature quality opponents and a small amount of games; a single hot streak or slump will lead to misleading results about a player's impact.

Why Point Out Parise and Malkin?  Partially, it's in response in the comments to this FanPost. I figured it'd be interesting.  If nothing else, you may want to keep Parise's impact in the back of your mind more than Malkin for future posts.

If a Player Doesn't Rank All That High Across the Board or in One Stat, Does That Mean He Stinks?  No.  Just that they haven't been consistently making an impact in the regular season.  That's it.  A player can still excel and/or be valuable in other ways (GVT, straight up scoring, etc.)

Hey, Isn't Kovalchuk a Left Wing? He is. I have no idea why he's listed here as a RW.  I wouldn't pay too much attention to it.

2007-08 Season

The 103 Forwards - The Numbers:  Click here to see all 103 forwards' statistical values.

The 103 Forwards - The Ranks:  Click here to see all 103 forwards' stats by rank.

The Very Best & Kovalchuk's Ranks:

2007-08_kovalchuk_ranks_large

Click here for the 100% full size of this chart.

Thoughts:

Kovalchuk made the most impact in terms of on-ice shooting percentage and in GF/60 impact.  His PDO and on-ice GF/60 were good, too.  His SA/60 impact wasn't too terrible either.  Everywhere else, Kovalchuk coming onto the ice didn't help out those other stats at all.   I do notice that his quality of teammates was below the mark, so I'm sure playing on a poor Atlanta team didn't help.  However, the rate of shots (both ways) and goals against all went awry when he stepped on the ice. 

Brad Richards was actually similar, top 30 in two stats, pretty good in an additional one, and just plain bad in everything else.    Amazingly, Sean Avery's on-ice impact was generally better if only for ranking low in GA/60 impact and SF/60 impact instead of, you know, 8 out of 11 stats.

Zach Parise and Evgeni Malkin hit the top 30 mark 5 times, but in different ways.  Malkin sparkled in on-ice shooting percentage, PDO, on-ice GF/60, and GF/60 impact.  Parise was better in on-ice GA/60 and SA/60, SF/60 and SF/60 impact.  The two had great SF/60 impact on their teams in 2007-08.  Take your pick as to which is better; but keep in mind that Malkin did accomplish this against tougher competition.

Overall in 2007-08, the most solid forward in terms of on-ice impact and on-ice stats was Pavel Datsyuk.  He very nearly had top 30 ranks across the board, meaning he positively helped out his team and in a big way.  His teammate Henrik Zetterberg wasn't far behind.  I don't know what surprised me more when I compiled this: that Jason Arnott had big impacts across most of the board; or that Viktor Kozlov did in 07-08.   I've always felt that Koslov was overrated, someone who had the talent but didn't necessarily use it; I was frustrated watching him as a Devil.  But this proves me dead wrong.

2008-09 Season

The 102 Forwards - The Numbers:  Click here to see all 102 forwards' statistical values.

The 102 Forwards - The Ranks:  Click here to see all 102 forwards' stats by rank.

The Very Best & Kovalchuk's Ranks:

2008-09_kovalchuk_ranks_large

Click here for the 100% full size of this chart.

Thoughts:

Kovalchuk cracked the top 30 once again in on-ice shooting percentage and in GF/60 impact, but he also finished in the top 30 in terms of GF/60.  That's an improvement, but like 2007-08, most of the other on-ice and on-ice impact stats in everything else wasn't good at all.  Only his PDO and (somehow) his SA/60 impact are favorable.   Again, among his compatriots in terms of number of top 30 ranks met and QUAL COMP, Kovalchuk sticks out poorly.  Avery, Loui Eriksson, and Ryan Kesler aren't perfect but they are far more equitable across the board. Especially Avery, which threw me for a loop.  Annoying as he is, he provided a positive impact for his team in 08-09.

The very best forwards listed at the top have no names that should surprise you other than possibly Stephen Weiss, who gets slept on because he's down in Florida.   All are talented players and once again, Pavel Datsyuk nearly sweeps all the stats in ranking in the top 30.  Only in SF/60 impact did he look, well, average-like.   Zach Parise and Alexander Semin were right behind him, both improving drastically in providing a positive impact on the ice that ranked among the league's best for their teams.

As for Malkin, well, he's mostly where he was, save for seeing his SF/60 impact be far lower than it was in 07-08.  Again, the top on-ice save percentage among this group, a great PDO, and great GF/60 rankings in both on-ice GF/60 and GF/60 impact.   Kind of like Kovalchuk, only by not being abysmal in most of the other 7 stats remaining. Curiously, Zetterberg saw himself fall out of his high ranking, providing another way that Datsyuk was the bigger impact forward on the Detroit Red Wings.

2009-10 Season

The 138 Forwards - The Numbers:  Click here to see all 138 forwards' statistical values.

The 138 Forwards - The Ranks:  Click here to see all 138 forwards' stats by rank.

The Very Best & Kovalchuk's Ranks:

2009-10_kovalchuk_ranks_large

Click here for the 100% full size of this chart.

Thoughts:

This is actually the best Kovalchuk has done in terms of on-ice and on-ice impact stats in the last three seasons. Unfortunately, his Atlanta and New Jersey performances aren't broken down, so it's tough to get a read on why that could be.  Nevertheless, his most significant stats remain at on-ice shooting percentage, on-ice GF/60, and GF/60 impact.   His PDO ranked high due to playing in front of improved goaltenders; and he ranked fairly well in GA/60 impact, which is nice.  It's a big improvement over 2007-08.  However, he still ranked rather low in all four shooting rates.  Given that this is the third season this has happened, I think it's fair to say that Kovalchuk's presence doesn't lend itself to more shots being fired.

The adjusted CORSI/60 rate from each season deserves it's own explanation.  While Kovalchuk's production and contributions can't be denied from the last three seasons; the opposition couldn't be denied at shooting either.  In 2007-08 and 2008-09, Kovalchuk's on-ice CORSI was negative, meaning his opponents took more shooting attempts than his own team.  When adjusted, it was going to be low.  In 2009-10, Kovalchuk actually broke even but not by much. Why? His on-ice CORSI was above the even point.  Given that his CORSI improved from season to season as the quality of his teammates improved; I'd have to say that isn't coincidental.   Part of the problem lies on Kovalchuk; but if you surround most players with inadequate support when it comes to puck possession and shooting, then this is the likely result regardless of talent.

A look at the very best shows that Pavel Datsyuk is no longer at the very top - just near the top with a solid season.  Alex Ovechkin, who didn't do poorly in the prior two seasons, just rocketed up to the very top not just with top 30 rankings but several in the top 10.  He only missed sweeping all 11 stats with on-ice SA/60, and his 45th overall ranking isn't bad - it's just not in the top 30, that's all.  His regular center, Nicklas Backstrom, ended up in second; and 08-09 runner ups Parise and Semin finish behind Backstrom.   All were great for their teams in multiple ways, so this isn't so surprising.

There were plenty of surprises elsewhere. I definitely didn't expect to see Mark Recchi and Chris Kunitz rank so prominently.  Wojtek Wolski shows up, providing further proof that he had a fantastic 09-10 season.  Patrik Elias actually shows up for the first time under this criteria (didn't have the TOI/60 in past seasons) and stood out.  Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin remained among the best, but did so against weaker QUALCOMP in 09-10 than they did in 08-09.  Maybe they should have done more?  Even so, how could this have happened? Surely, opposing teams would want to key on the Sedin twins, match them against stingy defenders as much as possible.    How did it fall so much?  

Moreover, look at Malkin.   Like Kovalchuk, good to great in a few stats, abysmal in others. What's striking is that he fell from season to season whereas Parise soared, and even Kovalchuk improved in a little bit.   I'm not saying Malkin was terrible or he has no talent, just that he didn't have a positive impact in various ways when he stepped on the ice in 2009-10.

Conclusions

Based on the numbers across three seasons, the only areas where Kovalchuk has somewhat consistently had a noticeable on-ice impact has been in terms of on-ice shooting percentage and goals for per 60.  This shouldn't be so surprising given his excellent shooting percentage and his goal scoring ways.  Plus, he accomplished this while facing a decent level of competition (declined by season), playing a large amount of minutes at even strength (which rose from season to season), and varying quality of teammates.

That he didn't stand out in the other stats, though, belies that Kovalchuk hasn't been a major impact player when he steps on the ice. Not that he's been a liability; but he's definitely not in the class of Parise, Datsyuk, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and others in these past seasons.   It can be said that he's improved over the past three seasons in some stats.  For example, when he stepped on the ice in 2009-10, the GA/60 didn't go up like it did in the two prior seasons, the SA/60.

Kovalchuk_impact_over_3_seasons_large

While that's all well and good, the major point remains the same - he's not the impact player we all think of when it comes to most of these stats.  Some are great, don't get me wrong.  Yet, there isn't any evidence from the last three seasons that when he steps on the ice, the team shoots more (it actually dropped in two out of three seasons) or the opposition shoots less (2009-10 excepted) or anything beyond goals and shooting percentage.   For a player who produces, contributes and shoots like Kovalchuk, perhaps that's not a  huge problem.   He's still valuable, this method is far from the be-all, end-all way of looking at a player.  It's just that he's not an all-around impact player when he stepped on the ice in each of the last three seasons; so I doubt he'll suddenly become one in the future.

That reality, displayed over the last three seasons, should definitely be considered at contract negotiations by any team this summer.

Again, big thanks to Behind the Net for providing the numbers, thanks to Derek Zona for the adjusted CORSI/60 calculation again, and thanks to you for taking all of this in.  Now it's time for your say.   Did you expect Kovalchuk to have made more of a positive impact on the ice than he actually did?  (I honestly did, this whole thing opened my eyes).  Do you think he can improve on his own game or does he really need to be around better teammates to see his own numbers improve?  Did this post change your opinion of what the Devils (or anyone else) should do with Kovalchuk?  As always, let me know what you think in the comments.

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