When the New Jersey Devils traded for Ilya Kovalchuk in 2010, I must confess that I scoffed. I had an image in my head of who Kovalchuk was – an elite goalscorer with no concept of or interest in the defensive zone – that completely clashed with the ethos of the Devils, a team that has been built from the goal out ever since Martin Brodeur skated into Newark.
I admit, it was an image of Kovalchuk that was largely influenced by what I had heard rather than what I had seen. I didn’t make a habit of watching Atlanta Thrashers games so I had a very limited view of Kovalchuk as a player. But the consensus was that Kovalchuk was a one-dimensional scoring forward and I went with the consensus.
After putting up a point-per-game for the Devils after the trade, they signed him to a 15-year, $100 million contract (after the NHL rejected his 17-year, $102 million contract). He then proceeded to have the worst season offensively of his career, scoring fewer than 40 goals for the first time since 2002-03. He finished the year with 60 points and a dreadful minus-26 plus/minus (fifth worst in the league), which, combined with a devastating injury to Zach Parise, led to the Devils missing the playoffs.
Unsurprisingly, that led to a few questions: was the Russian sniper worth the long-term commitment? Though it is not a fair comparison, I have to admit that the first player that jumped into my mind was Alexei Yashin, who was traded to the New York Islanders, signed a massive, long-term contract, then sharply declined, leading to an expensive buyout that is still on the Islanders’ books. I was worried that the Devils might end up in a similar situation.
I was very, very wrong. Clearly, I didn’t really know Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk’s knockout punch on Brayden Schenn might be hogging the spotlight at the moment, but what is grabbing my attention is how Kovalchuk is contributing in every other aspect of the game. His commitment to the defensive side of the puck is noteworthy, and he’s once again putting up the kind of offensive numbers that make him one of the elite forwards in the NHL.
Maybe it was not being named to the All-Star Game that did it. The Devils didn’t have a single representative at the festivities in Ottawa after rookies Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique bowed out with injuries and, since the break, Kovalchuk has 10 points in 4 games, catapulting him into the top 20 in goals and points. He is now ninth in the league in points-per-game and is third in the league in shorthanded points.
Oh yeah, forgot to mention: he plays a regular shift on the penalty kill now. Kovalchuk averages over a minute per game short-handed and has received effuse praise for his penalty killing from his coach.
Playing on the penalty kill hasn’t reduced his importance on the powerplay: Kovalchuk leads the NHL in powerplay ice time, averaging 5:09 per game as he plays on both powerplay units and essentially doesn’t leave the ice during the man advantage. It is, admittedly, not a perfect situation, but it is a necessary one. The Devils simply don’t have the personnel for two strong powerplay units, particularly on defence, so Kovalchuk fills the need.
Despite the massive minutes on special teams, Kovalchuk still leads all NHL forwards in even-strength ice time, as he frequently double shifts with the fourth line in New Jersey. Unsurprisingly, he also leads all forwards with 24:42 in total ice time per game and is 16th among all players.
A further sign that Kovalchuk is doing absolutely everything for the Devils? New Jersey currently has the best shootout record in the league at 9-1. Kovalchuk leads the league in shootout goals this season with 8 in 9 attempts. Those two facts are connected.
The only possible way that Kovalchuk could be contributing more to the Devils right now is if he strapped on goalie pads and spelled Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg for awhile. Actually, considering Brodeur’s brutal .895 save percentage, that might not be a bad idea.
Once again scoring at a better than point-per-game pace, Kovalchuk seems intent on reminding everyone that his hands, feet, and release are among the quickest in the NHL. But that’s just how it seems: the truth is that Kovalchuk doesn’t feel the need to prove anything individually. He’s completely committed to team success, which has completely changed my perception of him.
This quote from Kovalchuk after scoring his 750th career point on Sunday told me everything I need to know:
“I’ll trade all those points to be one day in the Stanley Cup final.”