Ilya Kovalchuk and the Return to the 50-Goal Mark
By Mike Luciano (@THG_MikeLuci)
When the Devils acquired left wing Ilya Kovalchuk from the then-Atlanta Thrashers in February 2010, they acquired a one-dimensional sniping forward capable of coordinating a power play set up from the point. Although the array of offensive skill he possessed was undeniable, his defensive play left a lot to be desired. Since his arrival in New Jersey, Kovalchuk’s game has been radically transformed. He’s effective in all three zones and has become a reliable outlet to play in all situations, including the penalty kill.
Before his first full season in New Jersey, Kovalchuk has hit the 40-goal mark in six of those eight seasons, netting fifty goals twice during that span in 05-06 and 07-08. Although his 37 goals and 83 points led him to finish fifth overall in scoring last season, he hasn’t breached the 40-goal plateau since 2010, being the last Devil to do so for that matter.
It begs the question as to whether or not we’ll ever see Ilya Kovalchuk hit the 50-goal mark again.
There are a lot of factors to take into consideration. Although the Devils are reputed to orchestrate a defense-first playing system, which avid critics of the organization instinctively cite as the main reason for any offensive constraints that have been bestowed onto Kovalchuk’s game, that isn’t the case anymore…sorry to disappoint the extremist critics of Devils hockey.
When you look at the environments that Kovalchuk was in during the two seasons he breached the 50-goal mark, they have practically no similarities.
During the 2005-2006 season, Kovalchuk played alongside the likes of Marc Savard, Marian Hossa, and Vyacheslav Koslov. The four combined for totals of a 144 goals and358 points. Of the seven defensemen on that team that appeared in more than65 contests, four of them registered at least 25 points. Outside of Atlanta’s top-four, Peter Bondra was the only other player to register at least 20 goals.
Two seasons later, Kovalchuk was practically by himself. Outside of Marian Hossa, who was dealt at the trade deadline, nobody else on the Thrashers scored more than 17 goals. After Kovalchuk’s 87 points, there was practically a vertical drop-off to Mark Recchi’s 48 points. Outside of defenseman Tobias Enstrom’s 38 points, no defenseman on the team finished with more than 14. The most viable explanation for Kovalchuk’s offensive contributions are a result of him thriving in the Thrasher’s playing system, having been there for six years at that point.
Prior to being traded to New Jersey during the 2009-2010 season, Kovalchuk was on pace to tally 48 goals in 76 games (he was out for six games) with the Thrashers. Had he played a full season, he would have been on pace to hit the 50-goal mark for the third time in five years with 51 goals. The 10 goals he scored in his first 27 games with the Devils put him on pace for just 28 goals out of 76 games that season, and just 30 in a full campaign.
Kovalchuk had just nine goals through January 1st during the 2010-2011 season. After the Devils parted ways with captain Jamie Langenbrunner, the team experienced a miraculous turnaround that seemingly occurred overnight. In the final 44 games of the season, Kovalchuk exploded offensively, netting 22 goals during that span, which would have put him on pace for 41 goals if he started the full season that way.
Last season, Kovalchuk was under heavy scrutiny for yet another slow start after tallying just 11 goals in his 31 games. Citing his orchestration for Cam Ward’s goal in the December 26th game against the Carolina Hurricanes as his turning point, Kovalchuk finished the season strong with 26 goals in his final 46 contests. At that rate, he would have been on pace to register 43 goals in 77 games (he missed five games due to injury), and 46 goals in an 82 game season.
If these numbers are any indication, they show that Kovalchuk has been adaptive to the Devil’s turbulent transitive occurrences since his arrival that include several roster modifications, three coaching changes, and adapting to each coach’s style of play, despite enduring a series of very apparent and elongated adjustment periods as the numbers above have demonstrated.
It’s worth noting that Zach Parise was the last Devil to score 40 goals outside of Kovalchuk, which he did in the 2008-2009 season with 45. Prior to that, just three Devils hit the 40-goal mark since 2001. Patrik Elias and Alexander Mogilny respectively scored 40 and 43 goals in the 2000-2001 Season, and Brian Gionta scored 48 in 2005-2006, a franchise record.
While it’s fair to say that Kovalchuk is in the prime of his career, he enters each season another year older. Currently 29, Kovalchuk would be entering his third full season with New Jersey (assuming the NHL and NHLPA get these CBA negotiations settled).
While Kovalchuk’s role as a pivotal offensive presence on the team will go undisputed, seeing Kovalchuk hit fifty in a Devil’s uniform is a highly debatable topic. Despite the team’s encouraging response to Pete DeBoer’s installation of a more aggressive playing system, it’s common knowledge that no Devil has ever hit the 50-goal plateau.
Since the last lockout ended, only two players have scored 50 or more goals in their 30′s. Jarome Iginla reached the 50-goal mark when he was 30-years-old in the 07-08 season and Jaromir Jagr hit it two seasons earlier when he was 34. In addition to those two, just two more players ever scored 50 goals in a season when they were in their 30′s since 2000 when Joe Sakic (32) and Pavel Bure (30) both reached that mark during the 2000-2001 season. Aside from Pavel Bure, it’s also worth mentioning the players above were supported by formidable offensive casts and were on teams that made playoff appearances during those respective seasons.