If he wasn't before, then after Sunday's 4-3 OT loss to Philadelphia, Ilya Kovalchuk is clearly the biggest source of discontent among the New Jersey Devils fans. They are mostly justified too. Among a Devils squad that were mostly second-rate on the ice after the first period, Kovalchuk was notably terrible in Game 1. The league's third most prolific shooter in the regular season got no shots on net. His main asset is that he just creates and takes all kinds of shots, yet he only attempted two shots in Game 1 - both missing the net entirely. He got rolled in the possession game, his passes were off the mark, and he was slower than ever.
The most common point made by observers is that he's hurt. This is true; the latest tipping point being that the team stated that he was in therapy on Monday, as per this report by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. An injury would explain the lack of speed, the lack of taking on defenders (though, I'm not sure that's a good thing when he does do it), and the lack of explosiveness in his strides. However, this point has been raised since Game 3 of the Florida series and possibly even before that. In that first round series, lack of speed or not, Kovalchuk put up 3 goals and 25 shots on net. Those may be modest totals on their own; but only Parise had more shots on net than Kovalchuk on the Devils (and everyone else in the NHL in first round) and only Travis Zajac had as many goals as Kovalchuk on the Devils. Kovalchuk was still getting back on defense and wasn't a giant negative in possession either. He wasn't a do-little player like, say, Petr Sykora. Moreover, I really doubt the coaches give Kovalchuk 25+ minutes per game and have him practice right before the Philadelphia series if he was seriously hurt then.
However, Game 1 against Philadelphia was a bona fide awful game. It seemed like almost decision he made was incorrect and he was just out of place out there. Serious questions are now raised. Should he sit a game? Should his minutes be cut? Where in the lineup should he be against the Flyers? What can the Devils do with Kovalchuk playing like this? More importantly, what can Kovalchuk do? After the jump, I attempt some answers to these questions and other thoughts about Kovalchuk.
Let's take a step back and look at why a lot of fingers are being pointed at Kovalchuk in this postseason and not, say, David Clarkson.
Part of it is the money. Kovalchuk signed a big contract and so the expectations for him are higher than most of the roster. Part of it is his 2011-12 season. Kovalchuk had a great season, finishing fifth in the NHL in scoring. The Devils don't often have top-ten scorers. The only Devil to have done it in the last decade was Zach Parise and that was in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons. Given that Kovalchuk bombed his way to 300+ shots (one of six players to do it this season) along with the production, and so we expect him to continue producing in the playoffs. Part of it is his skill set. The Devils don't really have anyone who has all of the offensive tools Kovalchuk has, particularly his shot. If he suffers in a game, than the offense is that much weaker unless someone else has an impressive game. When he's able to use all those skills, then he's a constant threat and the Devils' offense is stronger for it. Part of it his opposition. Since Kovalchuk has produced so much and has all of these tools, the opposition isn't going to send out weak players against him. No, he's facing either top lines or second lines. If you move him, the coaches will make a point of it to not let New Jersey's leading scorer lead his team to a result. Part of it has to do with perception to a point. It's no secret that hockey fans love a guy who can hustle. Even during this season without any concern of an injury, Kovalchuk didn't always look like he was hustling. Like Scott Niedermayer, he didn't have to - he's a good enough skater to get where he needs to be without looking like it's a hard effort. As great as hustling and hard work are, this isn't the National Hustle League. This is not an issue when things are going well, but when it's not, how fast Kovalchuk isn't suddenly becomes a talking point. With all of this (and maybe some more) in mind, it's clear that Kovalchuk is an important part of the New Jersey Devils. So when he's doing poorly, it's a far bigger deal than when other Devils play poorly.
Now, what makes dealing with Kovalchuk in this current situation difficult is how Peter DeBoer and the other coaches utilize Kovalchuk as a player. In the regular season, Kovalchuk played a lot of minutes and in all kinds of situations. His average ice time was 24:26 per game, the highest among all forwards in the NHL by at least a minute. When he's doing well, then it's not a big deal. Who wouldn't want one of the team's top players to constantly be on the ice when he's contributing on nearly every shift? When he's having a bad game, then that's a lot of minutes tied up in a player with everyone else on the roster set in their own role. Even with his injury - whatever it is - the Devils coaches don't think it's a big hinderence as Kovalchuk has averaged 25:09 per game in the playoffs. That the Devils go to overtime in three of their eight playoff games skewes things. However, Kovalchuk is still far and away the ice-timer leader among forwards. That's a lot of minutes no matter how you slice it.
It is precisely because of that fact that the Devils can't simply bench him for a game in the hopes that he gets healthier. It's easy to say "bench Kovy" or "give him a night off," but then who takes his spot and his minutes in the playoffs? Remember that Kovalchuk was moved to right wing because the Devils didn't have a lot of ready-set options at that position. David Clarkson has been quiet by his standards for most of this postseason. He's more suited in a third-line role, as proven when he was moved up to the Elias line for a few games this season. Steve Bernier has been very good in the postseason for a fourth-liner. He should remain there because there's no way he can handle what Kovalchuk does, no matter how much Peter Laviolette would love the idea. Sliding Alexei Ponikarovsky over is a non-starter since, like Clarkson, he hasn't done a whole lot in his usual position. Giving him a bigger role would be a huge risk. I wouldn't touch the centers unless I felt really confident in a fifth center or that Jacob Josefson was coming back - and I can't see either happening soon. And none of the names I mentioned can really handle 20+ minutes in all situations. There really isn't a reliable replacement to taking Kovalchuk out for a game; especially with Philadelphia being able to match-up however they wish. If anything, the Flyers should be the ones pleading for Kovalchuk to sit - it'll make the game easier for them. In my opinion, if he can play, then he pretty much has to play.
It also doesn't help that the team doesn't have many decent options outside of the current roster. The immediate options without calling someone from Albany up are Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen. Neither of those guys should see the ice under normal circumstances, much less the playoffs. From Albany, there's Mattias Tedenby, who has speed, much less size, much more vulnerable on defense, and he's not always trying to get involved on offense either. Putting Tedenby in, especially against a deep Flyers team, would likely not go well at all. I really enjoy Vladimir Zharkov but only on a fourth line role. Since the Devils don't have an obvious roster move to fill in the space; he's not going to be coming in either. The same goes for Steve Zalewski. I don't think the other forwards in Albany are worth considering. Again: if Kovalchuk can play, then he pretty much has to play.
I think a more viable solution, especially in the short-term, would be to cut his minutes a bit. I'm not talking about something like what happened to Anton Volchenkov, where he got dropped to sub-14 minute nights (and he earned those). That said, I think the Devils can stand to give Kovalchuk more breaks. While he's been a regular on the penalty kill, the Devils do have several forwards who can do his job. Replacing his 1:09 of shorthanded ice time per game may not seem like much, but it does reduce his workload. Besides, if his value is in being an offensive player, then he's not going to add too much by being in primarily defensive situations. The Devils could also consider having Kovalchuk come off quicker for line changes. Since becoming a Devil, Kovalchuk has usually been the last one off for shifts. It's not uncommon for him be on the ice for longer than his other linemates almost to a point where I think it's intentional. If that's the case, then change the tactic: have Kovalchuk come off when available along with his other linemates. Someone else may have to stay out longer, but that's OK from shift-to-shift. Should the Devils want to be bolder, they could reduce his power play time as well; but I'm not sure there are any decent options to take up that other point-man spot. Besides, if his value is in being an offensive player, then he should be very much involved in primarily offensive situations. The idea is not to cut Kovalchuk out completely, but lighten his workload so he's not being leaned on so much. The other skaters may not be able to replace a large amount of his minutes, but they can split up smaller shares more easily without being terribly damaging (I hope). Likewise, he'll be better rested in games so that he can possibly contribute more as the game goes on.
I understand that these aren't dramatic changes and dramatic changes are what some fans may want to see. They may not even be good answers. Again, this is not a simple situation to deal with because of Kovalchuk's importance to the team and how he's been utilized. This isn't like dropping Volchenkov to a third pairing because Marek Zidlicky has proven he can be a top-four guy. It's not like keeping Sykora on the bench as Sykora's not as important or irreplaceable.
That all said, the biggest change going forward has to come from Kovalchuk himself. He is injured to some degree, but he's got to know and understand that he made a lot of poor decisions against Philly. He's got to know and understand that he needs to fire shots when he's got a good look on net because that's his main function on offense. He's got a fantastic shot, but he's got to use it. He's got to use his head out there. If he's limited in motion, then he's got to adjust - this may mean settling for a decent shot instead of forcing a pass. I doubt Kovalchuk just recently got hurt and he was useful in the Florida series. We know he can do more; the injury isn't a complete excuse, I don't think. It's up to him to, well, actually do more. Hopefully, that happens in Game 2 and the criticism will - well, it won't go away for reasons I don't think I can properly explain, but it wouldn't be as strong.
In any case, there aren't any easy, viable solutions in the short term for dealing with this situation. That in of itself is a difficulty since Game 2 is tomorrow at Philadelphia and it's just about a must-win for the Devils to have a reasonable shot in this series. I'm sure you have strong opinions either way, so please continue to give them in the comments. Thank you for reading.