The Case Against Re-Signing Ilya Kovalchuk by the New Jersey Devils this Summer

I think Ilya Kovalchuk should not be signed because of Zach Parise, because Parise is more important to the team. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

This summer, the New Jersey Devils will have at least 5 roster spots to fill, per CapGeek, 2 forwards, 2 defensemen, and a goaltender. Earlier this month, I've done an overview of all the free agents coming out of New Jersey with thoughts on what the Devils should do.   Since then, I've focused a lot of attention on the two biggest unrestricted free agents coming away from the 2009-10 roster, if not the league: Paul Martin and Ilya Kovalchuk.  Initially, here was my take on Martin and Kovalchuk:

I thought Andy Greene was great in this past season, but I'd feel a lot more comfortable with Martin as the #1 instead of hoping Greene can repeat his 09-10 season.

....

Trading for Ilya Kovalchuk was the right call in my opinion.  He brings a lot of positives to the Devils, and he's an excellent scorer who plays against top competition.  He also boosts the profile of the team as an established star in the game today. Guys like Kovalchuk are rare.  However, given the cap situation and the fact that Kovalchuk plays the same position as Parise and Elias, is it wise for the Devils to commit a ton of money to three left wingers?  Initially, I think not.  Kovalchuk and Martin being UFAs both require a post of their own in the future.  I'll go into detail there.

Now, I've made the case that Paul Martin will be the most effective defenseman on the market this summer; and gave my opinion as to why the best thing the Devils can do for their defense is to retain Paul Martin and then sign a UFA to upgrade the #4 spot in place of Mike Mottau.   However, while the short-term decision is between Martin or Kovalchuk; after researching Kovalchuk's contributions and on-ice impact a little more, I think the decision is really between Kovalchk or Parise. 

Yes, Zach Parise.  I think he's proven over the last three seasons that while Kovalchuk is a fantastic talent and would make a great Devil, Parise is the better left winger overall and so re-signing Kovalchuk is not necessary, in addition to the salary cap and positional problems that may arise with retaining him.   Please continue on after the jump for my case against Kovalchuk.

The Points

One of the first things people look at when it comes to comparing players is points. I don't think it's the only way, but let's look at it first before delving into more advanced stats.  From NHL.com, here they are.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
07-08 - Ilya Kovalchuk 79 52 35 87 -12 52 16 2 4 0 283 18.4
08-09 - Ilya Kovalchuk 79 43 48 91 -12 50 12 0 6 0 275 15.6
09-10 - Ilya Kovalchuk 76 41 44 85 10 53 12 0 4 0 290 14.1

vs.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
07-08 - Zach Parise 81 32 33 65 13 25 10 1 8 0 266 12.0
08-09 - Zach Parise 82 45 49 94 30 24 14 0 8 0 364 12.4
09-10 - Zach Parise 81 38 44 82 24 32 9 1 5 0 347 11.0

Kovalchuk has been one of the league's premier scorers over the past decade, whereas Parise wasn't even drafted until 2003 and didn't play until 2005-06.  He really broke out in 2008-09, putting up 98 more shots on net and outscoring Kovalchuk, and the comparison by points is a bit more fair.  We can immediately see that Kovalchuk is the superior shooter by both goals and shooting percentage; but Parise has racked up far more shots.  Combined with a much smaller shooting percentage range, we get a sense that Parise is about 11-12% overall and given that he creates and takes so many shots, that's where the production comes from.   I'd go as far as to say that both players are big producers - Kovalchuk as the better sniper and Parise as the more persistent winger.

Goals Versus Threshold

Let's go beyond points and use something more complex.  Last week, I brought up Tom Awad's Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) stat to highlight that Ilya Kovalchuk was a big contributor to his teams (and that he was not a defensive liability) in 2009-10. Still, he wasn't the best to end in New Jersey. Zach Parise was one of the few forwards who had a higher total GVT than Kovalchuk last season, per Behind the Net's listing.  Therefore, Parise contributed more to his team than Kovalchuk did (and the only forwards he didn't surpass were Ovechkin, Crosby, Henrik Sedin, Backstrom, and Semin).

Awad put together an all-time GVT list for all NHL players since 1944 and in the massive file, every player had their GVT broken down by season complete with rank among all NHL players from that season. While Awad's GVT listings were normalized to account for changes across eras and rounding errors leave a few GVT values rounded up 0.1 more than they may appear, here's how Kovalchuk and Parise stacked up in the last three seasons.

Parise_vs_kovalchuk_gvt_07-10

Both have been great contributors, but Parise really took it up another level in the last two seasons.  What this tells me is that Kovalchuk may have been more consistent, but Parise has recently been the more significant contributor to his teams. 

5-on-5 On-Ice Impact

A few days ago, I focused on the on-ice and on-ice impact numbers from Kovalchuk in the last three seasons. Utilizing the on-ice/off-ice and zone start numbers from Behind the Net, I was able to compare Kovalchuk among all forwards who have played at least 30 games and had at least a time on ice per 60 of 13 for 5-on-5 situations.  Here's my post with those results, but the following chart summarizes Kovalchuk's own impact.

Parise_vs_kovalchuk_-_kovy_on_ice_07-10_large

Where Kovalchuk stood out was in on-ice shooting percentage, on-ice impact on goals for per 60, and goals for per 60.  His PDO was quite good across all three seasons.  However, he didn't have a positive impact on his teams' shots for per 60, he only provided a small impact in 07-08 for reducing shots against per 60, and he never had a good adjusted Corsi per 60 due to having such a poor Corsi to begin with.  Partially the result of playing on bad teams, perhaps, but his quality of teammates increased over each of the past three seasons only to result in, well, just above 0 in 2009-10.

Parise was among the hundred or so forwards in the comparison.  However, the significance and number of areas where Parise had a positive impact in New Jersey makes it moot.

Parise_vs_kovalchuk_-_parise_on_ice_07-10_large

In terms of even-strength on-ice impact, Parise is clearly the more well-rounded forward. When he steps on the ice, good things tend to happen.  That's not a cliche, that's not a talking point, that's the truth at even strength.

5-on-4 On-Ice Impact

The same even holds in 5-on-4 situations.  While Kovalchuk is one of the few players in the league to get tons of ice time on the power play regularly, his on-ice numbers and on-ice impact weren't very good despite being present for a lot of power play goals.  I go into more detail here, admitting that I still don't know what could cause this for Kovalchuk while someone like, say, Alex Ovechkin, can play neatly as much and have an amazingly beneficial on-ice impact on his team's PP.  

Kovalchuk_pp_impact_2007-2010_large

Parise, on the other hand, well, he out-did Kovalchuk in on-ice and on-ice impact as well despite not having been on the ice for so many PPGs.  Especially in this past season.

Parise_pp_impact_2007-2010_large

Conclusion of Parise vs. Kovalchuk

Here's what I think about Ilya Kovalchuk, just so doesn't anyone mistake me.

Kovalchuk is an excellent player and has been a consistent scorer for about a decade.  Kovalchuk is fast, slick with the puck, able to bust out moves to thrill the fans, and is an exceptional shooter.  Seriously, even Gabe at Behind the Net notes that while what makes a player successful at scoring is still undiscovered, in fact, Kovalchuk's really in a class of his own when it comes to shooting the puck.  Clearly, he's the type of player rarely seen in a Devils uniform. The type of player that makes people go to games just to see what he can do. The star who can command such fan support to put up a giant "KOVALCHUK ARMY" banner in Section 208 during the playoffs.

The notion that Kovalchuk is selfish or is a sieve on defense or doesn't care about the postseason or can't be a New Jersey Devil is absolute garbage in my opinion.  Anyone who wants to tell me otherwise better have some actual facts to back any of that up.

Parise will never be as gifted of a shooter as Kovalchuk.   In terms of production, Kovalchuk's still ahead of Parise; and while loved in New Jersey, Parise isn't "there" in terms of being a star.

However, Parise has been playing like a star and he'll get there in due time. More importantly, Parise has been a bigger contributor to his team than Kovalchuk has been and the team benefits in multiple ways beyond just goals for per 60 when Parise comes on the ice at even strength. 

Both are great, but I think it's clear Parise is more of a complete player than Kovalchuk.

The Money Issue - The Salary Cap Issue

Kovalchuk is coming off a contract where he's made $6.3893 million over the last 5 seasons per CapGeek.  I highly doubt he's going to want a maximum value contract, and I don't see any reason why he would take a pay cut.  If you think he will, well, explain it to me because I'd be highly skeptical.  Especially given that he's at the prime of his career.

For the sake of argument, let's consider that the Devils sign him to a nominal increase: $6.4 million.  That would make him the highest paid player on the New Jersey Devils and leave the Devils with $9.54 million left in cap space to sign two defensemen, sign a back-up goaltender, and sign centers plus retaining restricted free agents like David Clarkson and Mark Fraser, who will both fill up another $1.5125 million if they sign for the minimum possible amount.  Actually, make it $2.145 million if Rod Pelley signs for the minimum too and stays up in NJ.  

So the amount of money really left to play with in this hypothetical, unrealistic-everyone-signs-relatively-cheap scenario, is $7.395 million.   Let me continue the cheap deals; knock off another $500k should Yann Danis or some other back up comes in at the league minimum.    So that's $6.895 left for two defenseman positions and two centers.

Unless Lou wants to go right up to the salary cap limit - and this whole time I'm assuming a $58.6 million cap - expect the signings to be cost-effective.  That would mean that we can forget about any chance of re-signing or replacing Paul Martin, the most effective defenseman on the market this summer.  Without a real replacement out on the market, that only serves to weaken the defense.  I would also guess that the chances of the Devils retaining Mike Mottau instead would rise dramatically.  While the Devils can bring someone up from Lowell, keep in mind that they have cap hits of their own, per CapGeek. Tyler Eckford is a RFA and by mandated raises for RFA, he'll be at a million or higher; and Matthew Corrente would add another $821.7k.     Of course, if they sign Mottau or some other cheap defenseman, with Fraser retained, the Devils would have 6 defensemen on the roster: a top 4 of Greene-White-Salvador-Mottau/UFA.  Not exactly something that you'll be necessarily pleased with by the start of the 2010-11 season.

As for centers, the Devils can save some space by moving Patrik Elias or Dainius Zubrus to center.  Meaning, the Devils will move players who have been more effective as wingers into a center position.  This would lead the Devils have some cash to sign a checking center or a tweener between the second and third lines.   Now, this is all considering that Kovalchuk signs the cheapest contract where he wouldn't take a pay cut.  The likelihood of that is probably somewhere less than 1%.  

Essentially, forget about the Devils signing both Kovalchuk and Martin; the cap situation would be even tighter to really improve where the Devils need to improve. The Devils could, of course, trade someone to provide space.  Only deals in the NHL aren't done in a vacuum and any deal to free up cap space would probably leave Lou with far less than true value for what he may offer.   And space will likely need to be freed up for Parise getting a deserved raise after 2010-11.

At least with just signing Martin, the Devils have more room to play with while ensuring their defense has a true leader.  Not retaining Kovalchuk would mean, what, Patrik Elias going back to left wing and the Devils looking for a second line center?  I would think that's a far more sensible situation to be in this summer and the team could still address needs properly.

The Money Issue - The Positional Issue

Let's go to a more qualitative question: If Kovalchuk re-signs for only  $6.4 million, then he'll be the highest paid player on his team.  Given that Zach Parise has been the top forward on the Devils in the past two seasons and will likely be the top forward again, can we be satisfied with committing this much money to someone playing behind Parise at left wing?

Well, we already are with Elias. He makes $6 million and I don't think anyone minds as long as he produces.  Which he does for the most part. Still, if the idea is to make a big change, keep Kovalchuk as a star, and have him be a crucial part of the team, how can he do that if he's behind Parise?  Would he be happy for a whole season behind Parise? Would Parise be happy for a whole season behind Kovalchuk?  Of course, Elias is the example

Speaking of, let me bring this up again: Elias' best position is at left wing, Parise's best position is at left wing, and Kovalchuk's position is left wing. Even before a Parise extension, we're talking at least $15.525 million (it'll be higher depending on what Kovalchuk commands) at one forward position.   That's a lot of money to tie up in one side of the ice; and it leaves less to address center or defense.  That's why I think if Kovalchuk is signed, it'll likely mean Elias is going to center or going to the off-wing on the right side.  It makes no sense to put either of these guys on the third line, not that moving Elias away from his best side makes a lot of sense.

That's why I think keeping Kovalchuk isn't necessary.  He's talented, he's fantastic, he works hard, but how much he'll command will be much more than Martin, it'll leave less cap space for other moves, and it'll create issues among the roster that could be better addressed with just Parise and Elias at left wing.

There's merit in keeping in Kovalchuk and I believe an argument can be made for it.  However, I believe that resigning Martin over Kovalchuk is the more sensible option. It gives the Devils more room to address their other needs, possibly retain some space for an extension for Parise (which is important), and allows Parise and Elias to remain in their best position: left wing.   

It's especially vital that Parise remains the top left wing on the team, as he has been a big contributor on the ice and has had a very positive impact on the team when he has come on the ice.  He needs to be on the first line to best benefit the Devils, and signing Kovalchuk could very well disrupt that.  Again, Elias has had no issue playing behind Parise; but for the potential money Kovalchuk commands, it begs the question that he needs to be on the first line to possibly justify his contract.

Which leads me back to what the stats showed: Parise is more of a complete player than Kovalchuk. Therefore, Parise should remain at the top, Elias should remain on the left wing, and that means Kovalchuk walks.  Great player, but ultimately, the situation isn't right to keep him.

Your Turn

Thanks for reading.  Now it's your turn to give your take. If you think Kovalchuk should be re-signed anyway, say so and tell me why.  If this changed your mind in one way or another, then share that in the comments.  What did you think of this post overall? I'm sure you have plenty to say in response, so please have at it in the comments.

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