Is this fist-bumping man a franchise player on the New Jersey Devils? I argue that he isn't - yet. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Occasionally, I'll get e-mails from readers with a question. I was asked this one recently and I figured it's a good enough question to pass along on the site: Is Ilya Kovalchuk a franchise player right now? This is a good question not only because it is open for debate, but also because a deeper question must be answered first: What is a franchise player anyway?
For some, the answer will be a simple "yes" to the headline question since Kovalchuk's getting paid like one. If the management of the New Jersey Devils didn't think he was a franchise player, then they wouldn't have given him so much a big contract last summer. On top of that, Kovalchuk's been a star on this team since his arrival last February. He's been one of their marquee players; playing tons of minutes while featured heavily in what marketing the team does. He is a focal point for the media and for other teams among other Devils players. No one's promoting "See Andy Greene and the Devils take on (Team X)," after all. As a result, he must be seen as a franchise player given how much attention he gets on top of his contract. These are all fair points to hold.
However, I have to disagree with that basis because of that deeper question. A franchise player, in my opinion, isn't someone who gets the most money and the most attention. They are a player whose role on the team is important on the ice and shapes their identity. Ilya Kovalchuk does not currently fit that description on the New Jersey Devils; so I have to say "no" to the original question. However, I don't think this is bad and I don't think it's binding either. I'll explain further after the jump.
When I think of franchise players for the New Jersey Devils, I think of former Devils like Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, as well as current players like Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias, and to a lesser degree Zach Parise. This franchise's identity is built on relentless discipline, an emphasis on backchecking, and two-way hockey. Past legends like Stevens and Niedermayer emphasize this on the back end, while Brodeur and Elias are still important players from the halcyon days of the late 1990s/early 2000s. Parise has demonstrated his excellence at both ends of the rink and provided he can return to that excellent form this season, fans want him signed to a long term contract because he will lead the "next generation" of the team. They were very important to their team's success in their time (or currently are in the case of Elias, Brodeur, Parise). I know, it's not fair to compare Kovalchuk to a current Hall of Fame defenseman, a future Hall of Fame defenseman, a future Hall of Fame goaltender, a legendary Devils forward, and the most complete forward this team has had since Elias. All of them have been on the team far longer than Kovalchuk to make their mark.
I think that's another factor that must be considered: length of time on the team. For a team that has had the success the Devils have, it's nigh impossible to just join the team and be a player the team can build around. Kovalchuk has only worn a Devils jersey for 113 total games in his career, which is a relatively short time in a player's career. Plus, the Devils have had this identity for close to two decades if not longer; that's not going to change with a season and a third of another player. In due time, Kovalchuk could be a franchise player and given his contract, I'm sure there are plenty of Devils fans, teammates, and employees who will hope he will one day. Still, for me to consider Kovalchuk as a franchise player of the New Jersey Devils hockey club, then he'll have to reach those lofty levels one day.
Let's take a step back and discuss Kovalchuk for a bit. Over the past 113 games, we've witnessed first-hand why Kovalchuk is so highly regarded as a forward. He oozes offensive talent. His shot is fantastic, his passing is strong, and he's an excellent skater with an "extra gear" that still surprises me when he does use it. While 31 goals and 60 points isn't much to celebrate, but given that the Devils' struggled so mighty to score last season, that I think it's indicative of Kovalchuk's talents that he still reached that mark despite his shooting percentage and the team's dropping like a stone in 10-11. I'm looking forward to what he can produce on a team that will have Parise and far better luck than they did last season, actually.
At the same time, we've seen the flaws in Kovalchuk's game along with his gifts. Too often Kovalchuk will lead the attack but be forced to stop at the point due to defenders closing him out and not have any good options to keep it going. These lead to turnovers - not necessarily the heinous ones that result in the other team scoring - which ends the Devils' offense for the time being. Kovalchuk has shown in the second half of last season that he can learn to backcheck; but he still needs more work on when and how to do that. Just as importantly, Kovalchuk doesn't forecheck nearly as much as he should - something you'd expect to see given his defensive game isn't as good as his offensive game.
The advanced stats at Behind the Net reflect the effect of these flaws: less possession. While Kovalchuk has enjoyed weaker competition, more offensive zone starts, and more time at even strength in New Jersey than he did in Atlanta, he's still treading water when it comes to possession. I'm a big believer in possession driving success, and this is something Kovalchuk needs to work on along with his defense to get to that "next level." While Kovalchuk has all of the skills to drive the play, it's these flaws that hurt it from time to time. Since he'll be a Devil for quite a while and for quite a lot of money, Kovalchuk should make a point of it to get better in at least the possession game so he's more than just an offensive weapon.
I'll admit some of these flaws are possibly assisted by decisions made by coach. If the coach wants Kovalchuk to lead the attack and not forecheck, then Kovalchuk following their lead isn't really something to fault him for. Yet, they make it harder for Kovalchuk to advance to that "next level" and become a more complete forward.
The funny thing is that for right now, this not an issue. Kovalchuk is an elite sniper, and on this team he doesn't have to be the man the team is built around. Brodeur, Elias, and Parise are still on the team and while Kovalchuk is important, the team can account for his current flaws just like Kovalchuk accounts for the team's seemingly constant flaw of not having a go-to forward for offense. Therefore, I don't think it's such a bad thing to say that he's not a complete player or franchise player right now. Kovalchuk doesn't have to be the man, just an effective scorer.
Yet, in the long term, he needs to improve so he can become that franchise player - if only to come close to justifying his contract. I think this is possible. While he's in the prime of his career at age 28, he did show that he can improve in certain areas. His backchecking in March 2011 was far and away better than what it was in October 2010. Kovalchuk has dispelled myths that he's some sort of "enigma" or "primadonna" or that he can't be a team player. He's responded well to various changes in the lineup and didn't ask to leave when the team's season spent the first three months went awry. I think he'll be quite fine in New Jersey. He just needs to work on some parts in his game to better fit in the identity of the team. He doesn't have to be Parise or Elias with a way better shot, just a more complete game at both ends of the rink and a more efficient game with the puck so possession doesn't always dip when he's on the ice. Provided he can do this, the coaching can help him along in that regard (e.g. utilization on the PP, his responsibilities at both ends at evens), and management allows for proper personnel to play alongside him, then I can change my answer from "no" to a more open "no, not now but maybe later."
What do you think, readers? Is Ilya Kovalchuk a franchise player right now? How do you define a franchise player? Please leave your answers in the comments, and thank you for reading.