Ilya Kovalchuk spent the vast majority of his career as a left winger. He lined up on the left. He has a right-handed shot, so he played on the left. He played a lot of minutes starting from the left for Atlanta. He continued to be a left winger when he was acquired by the New Jersey Devils in 2010. However, ever since last season, he was shifted to a new position. Yes, a new spot in the lineup. A location that he was not in before: right wing. Peter DeBoer became the head coach, saw that he had one ace winger in Zach Parise who has been a left winger in New Jersey for seasons, saw that he had another ace winger in Kovalchuk, and decided the two had to play together. The two had to be on the ice at the same time and so Kovalchuk had to adjust. He had to move. And what's more is that now that Parise has signed with another team and so the first ace left winger was gone, so there's that spot open once again, a spot where Kovalchuk excelled in, a spot where Kovalchuk was an all-star in, a spot where we all know he can be the scoring threat that he is, and yet Kovalchuk remains at right wing. How can this make sense? How can this continue?
This is, I think, the reasoning behind the sometimes complaint of Kovalchuk's position on the ice. I've probably made it sound more hysterical than it actually is, but the general idea is the same. Kovalchuk was a great player at left wing and has had a lot of success at that position. He has a right handed shot so coming in from the left would be in his favor. Yet, DeBoer has put him on the opposite side last season and he is keeping him there this season despite past success at left wing and his shot. I completely understand that as the core point. That said, I'd like to argue that it's not a big deal.
First and foremost, Kovalchuk was very successful last season at right wing. According to NHL.com, he finished fifth in the league in scoring with 83 points, he finished tied for sixth in the league with 37 goals, and finished third in the league with 310 shots on net. In terms of even strength production, where he actually did line up at right wing, he wasn't quite productive with 22 goals and 27 assists for 49 points. He only finished 27th in the league there, but he did lead the Devils there. According to Behind the Net, he was a positive possession player on the right side in 5-on-5 play with an on-ice Corsi of 3.03. Other Devils forwards did better, but the achievement was that he was positive at all. The production continued into the playoffs as he led the Devils and nearly the whole league with 8 goals and 9 assists despite playing hurt. All of what Kovalchuk accomplished in 2011-12 strongly suggests that playing right wing was not a problem at all for him if only because he was a top-ten scorer in the league there.
Second, as much as I understand that it's preferable to put a right-handed shooter on the left side of the rink, we have to remember that Kovalchuk is an exceptional player. He has such a good shot and he is so skilled moving with the puck that he can fire away from anywhere in the offensive zone. Greg Hardwood came up with an app called the Super Shot Search that proves this about Kovalchuk. The online app charts where on the ice a player has scored (or shot) from based on where the game's scorer listed him. The scorer isn't precise, but it gives us a good idea of where the goals have come from. It goes back to the 2008-09 season, Kovalchuk's last full season in Atlanta. The chart for that season shows Kovalchuk firing goals from all over; just by sight it looks like most of them came from the middle of the ice, with quite a few from the left. Kovalchuk's goal locations are similarly varied in 2009-10, 2010-11, and 2011-12. Even though DeBoer made the positional switch last season, it hasn't drastically changed where Kovalchuk scores.
Third, just because a player lines up at right wing, it doesn't mean he's only going to play on the right side of the ice. In recent times, players are taught at a young age to shift where they are on the ice relative to the situation. For example, in yesterday's goal breakdown, Kovalchuk actually started where the left defenseman would be. Given his strong shot, a cleanly won faceoff would go back to him for a great opportunity to shoot. When the faceoff wasn't won, he dropped back - he didn't immediately go to his side of the ice. He stayed on the left because Henrik Tallinder got back to his zone first and that's where the open space was thanks to an ill-advised and badly-performed line change by the Islanders. He read the situation and acted accordingly.
Kovalchuk isn't the only one who does this. Pretty much most forwards in the NHL do this. Just look at any cycle on offense; all three forwards rotate to keep possession and open up a shot. Odd man rushes can involve any player and they're taught to keep going, whether it's their natural position or otherwise. While it's usually the center's responsibility to cover the slot in the defensive zone, if he goes elsewhere, then you'll see a winger shift to cover that spot. Yes, some players are suited for a position; but in the run of play, it's more important to get where they can make a play than sticking to a side of the ice. Since Kovalchuk is an exceptionally talented forward, he can do all that regardless of which wing he's slotted at.
Let me put it another way. A longtime, very successful left winger moved to center and I was skeptical about the decision. Actually, I didn't like the decision. That player wasn't good at at all faceoffs. That player played for over a decade at left wing and enjoyed his best NHL season ever at left wing. He was a franchise institution at the position. Why in the world would you ever want to move him?
That player was Patrik Elias. I wrote quite a bit a few years ago about how I didn't want him centering a line, back in the 2009 offseason when Brian Rolston was in Devils red. I wanted other players instead as the second line center behind Travis Zajac. As it turned out, the coaches knew better and I underestimated Elias' skills. Elias was and still is bad at taking faceoffs. However, he proved to be capable of playing against the toughest competition at evens and beat them. He hasn't just been a positive possession player, he has been exceptional for multiple seasons. He even remained very productive - he was a top ten scorer last season - while playing in all situations. Elias pretty much does everything you would want from a center except win most faceoffs. He does it so well that I suspect the faceoffs don't matter much in the bigger picture. Now, I'm surprised I even doubted it back then.
With all of this in mind, it really isn't that big of a deal that Kovalchuk is at right or left wing. He was an important and successful part of the team at right wing last season, he is an important part of the team at right wing now and he'll likely continue to be successful, and he will continue to do so for years to come regardless of whether he's at left or right wing.