What to do with Ilya Kovalchuk?
By Mike Luciano (@MikeLuci)
If you’ve recently come to realize that superstar left wing Ilya Kovalchuk has struggled offensively, then you’ve been living under a rock all this time.
Kovalchuk’s contract dilemma from two summers ago was well-documented and presently, many are calling his career commitment to the New Jersey Devils a condemnation on both him and the franchise. I’ll admit that I was guilty of sugarcoating Kovalchuk since his arrival via trade in February 2010 and showered his lackluster play since coming to New Jersey with excuses.
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Although he managed a point per game during his time with the Devils at the latter of the 2009-2010 season, I used his adjustment period to the team, its philosophy, and its playing system to excuse his abandonment of maintaining the goal and point pace he was following before the trade occurred. Last year was a season for the Devils where anything that could have gone wrong went wrong. Kovalchuk wasn’t exempt from that spell of misfortune, but his shortcomings certainly stood out more than others. Although he stepped up immensely after Jacques Lemaire took over behind the bench, it was too little, too late. This year, Kovalchuk has just six goals and ten points in twenty games, while manning a whopping minus eleven.
Although he missed about five games due to injury, this was supposed to be Kovy’s first “real” full season with New Jersey, a season where the team was supposed to have stabilized its roster from last year’s debacle of a season, the situation behind the bench, and their glaring salary cap issues. Going into the coming season, I warned Devils fans not to jump to conclusions if the Devils have a sluggish start (which they have). Every time the Devils start the season with a new head coach, they’ve struggled at the beginning and their offensive production was inconsistent and sporadic.
It stems from the team familiarizing itself with the new head coach’s philosophy and playing system. The Devils are clearly experiencing growing pains as they transition from the defense-based playing mentality that Jacques Lemaire drilled into their minds over the past two seasons to a more balanced out playing system introduced by DeBoer.
I’ve always said the trial and error period stretches for the first quarter of the season, which is the approximate time when the rift between this year’s contenders and pretenders widens. The Devils remain suspended between these two groups and won’t play any later than April if they continue their inconsistent play. Getting back to Ilya Kovalchuk, people forget that he is a human being just like you and I and that he is an athlete just like everybody else on the Devils. While his superstar status and hefty contract put extra pressure on him to produce, there are very few players versatile enough that can be inserted into any playing system and instantly thrive in it.
The question I’m trying to answer is what happened to the forty-goal scorer the Devils thought they acquired almost two seasons ago?
It’s certainly been a very rough ride for Kovy since he became a Devil and that ride’s carried over into this season. To get the most out of a player like Kovalchuk, you have to adhere to the circumstances under which he plays his best hockey. Kovalchuk thrives playing left wing and with a reliable playmaking center on his line. Presently, DeBoer has Kovalchuk on the team’s top line with Zach Parise on the left side and rookie Adam Henrique centering the duo of struggling superstars. Kovalchuk has reflected his discomfort at right wing through his play, having been very prone to mistakes and seeming lost at times on the ice. Although Kovy has a right-handed shot, he thrives at left wing on the rush because shooting on the off-wing gives makes his shooting options more flexible.
I’m sure these are all aspects of Kovalchuk’s game that DeBoer has made mental footnotes of. While many fans fiercely oppose Kovy playing the right wing, it’s presently Kovalchuk’s best option when you look at the team as a whole. Kovalchuk is where he is right now for two primary reasons: First, Zach Parise occupies the line’s left wing slot and Parise has showed more consistent chemistry with Henrique. Second, Kovalchuk’s position on the first line is currently the only way DeBoer can give him top minutes. The second line, which comprises of Danius Zubrus, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora has been the team’s most productive line, so there’s presently no logic in breaking that trio up. It would be senseless to drop Kovy to the third line because of the constraints on playing time. Just as important to acknowledge, the likes of Ryan Carter and David Clarkson don’t possess the skill or speed to coincide on a line with Kovy. Mattias Tedenby would be a great option, but his confinement to DeBoer’s doghouse makes that idea a instance of wishful thinking at this point.
AP File Photo
Right now, Devils fans have to be patient with Kovalchuk and the team as a whole. The highly anticipated return of Travis Zajac is essential because Zajac will stabilize the team’s center depth and give DeBoer more options in forming lines. Kovalchuk thrived when he played with Zajac for the second half of last season and with Parise showing promising chemistry with Henrique, it would make sense to first try a Kovy/Zajac pairing. Mattias Tedenby is long overdue for a shot in the top six and his ability to play right wing, explosive speed, and skill potential will enable him to keep up with Kovalchuk. David Clarkson is a logical choice to replace Kovalchuk on Parise’s line. Clarkson plays a strong physical game and his goalscoring potential, indicated by his tendencies of streaky production, could be unlocked on a line with two balanced producers in Parise and Henrique (if he keeps his consistent play up).
The return of Travis Zajac could be the missing puzzle piece this team needs to break its inconsistent play and get the most out of its top players. It just goes to show how vital the presence of one player can truly be to a team and how significant of an effect their presence or absence can have on certain players.