The Ilya Kovalchuk signing was questioned for all sorts of reasons in the off-season. What wasn’t questioned, however, was the perception that the sniper would likely make the Devils better to some degree once everything was finalized. Unfortunately for Devils fans, that doesn’t seem to be the case through the early going.
Of course, nine games is a very small chunk of the season. So small in fact that variance could be the prime culprit behind the Devils struggles thus far. That is usually my first suspicion whenever a team with a good roster struggles for no apparent reason. Last year, for instance, I thought that John Stevens was axed by the Flyers mainly because the pucks were bouncing the wrong way for 10 games. And there’s a whiff of that kind of bad luck to New Jersey’s misfortunes to start the year.
For example, Martin Brodeur has a .905 ES SV% in nine appearances. That’s ghastly for a goalie of his pedigree and won’t last (unless his age has finally caught up to him that is). In addition, Johan Hedberg has an ES SV% of .778 (!!), meaning the Devils have been treated to decidedly below average net-minding to start the year. So below average that there’s almost no chance it continues.
On top of that, almost all the Devils shooters are firing blanks. Only two New Jersey forwards have a SH% above 10% currently – Kovalchuk (10.3%) and Jason Arnott (10.7%). In fact, about half the active roster hasn’t scored a single goal yet and are operating with zeros in the SH% column. Other notably good players that have unsustainably low percentages are: Travis Zajac (4.3%), Zach Parise (8.6%), Dainius Zubrus (5.6%) and Patrick Elias (6.3%). Each guy has historically shot 10% or better over the course of his career. As such, there’s little chance they will all continue to score at such nominal rates.
That’s the good news for the Devils.
The bad news is their possession stats have fallen off a cliff. Last year, the Devils were a fairly strong possession club with a majority of the roster above water in terms of corsi (aside from some nominal fourth liners, rookies and the odd fighter). This season, however, most of the club is under water. Zubrus, Parise and Zajac continue to drive the play north, but the rest of the roster is spending more time in the defensive end, including Elias (-3.80/60), Langenbrunner (-18.70/60!), Arnott (-12.30/60) and of course Kovalchuk (-10.20/60). That’s a lot of money and cap space at the wrong end of the list.
And Kovalchuk is part of the problem. The addition of his salary resulted in a cap crunch that has decimated the Devils bottom-end depth. Thanks to the lack of cap space and some injuries, the Devils have been forced to run with rookies like Tim Sestito, Jacob Josefson, Matthew Corrente, Mark Fraser and Alexander Urbom to start the year. That’s a lot of inexperience and/or marginal talent peppered throughout the line-up and is no doubt part of the reason the team is having problems keeping the play in the offensive end.
The real problem, though, is that Kovalchuk has been terrible at ES. His dreadful corsi rate comes despite a favorable zone start ratio of 57.1%. In contrast, Arnott and Langenbrunner are at 41.5% and 42.0% respectively. And that’s the unfortunate truth about Kovalchuk: despite being a world-class puck handler and sniper, he’s an obviously flawed hockey player. Much of his production over the years has come either in softer circumstances at ES or because of scads of PP time. One of the other problems for the Devils right now is their inability to draw penalties (28 PP opportunities, or about 3 per game) meaning Kovalchuk is spending less time blasting pucks at 5-0n-4 and more time watching the play go the wrong way at 5-on-5.
There’s no question things will turn around for the Devils eventually. The team-wide power outage as well Brodeur’s struggles are bound to be temporary. That said, there does appear to be some fundamental problems with the club: ones that stem directly from the acquisition and signing of Kovalchuk to one of the most expensive contracts in the league.