Debating The Devils Free Agents – Ilya Kovalchuk
As July 1st approaches, I’ll take a look at the two biggest free agents coming off the roster for the Devils this offseason – Paul Martin and Ilya Kovalchuk. I’ve already taken a look at Martin, stating my case as to why the Devils should keep the young blueliner. Today I’ll profile Kovalchuk, whose presence would no doubt fuel the Devils’ offense next season.
When Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello executed a trade on February 4 to bring Kovalchuk to the Devils, a shockwave of excitement ran through all Devils’ fans. Here was an extremely talented left-winger who was a proven goal scorer. Thoughts raced through the fans minds, picturing Kovalchuk complete the Devils’ offense and immediately improve their powerplay. I believed Kovalchuk could solve the Devils’ scoring woes, and his ability would help bring the Devils out of their funk.
But things didn’t quite work out that way. Kovalchuk didn’t vastly improve the powerplay, and we never really saw him flash his offensive brilliance. At the end of the season, word came from the locker room that players struggled with the way Kovalchuk played. The switch never seemed to click, and Kovalchuk played good, not great, hockey.
In order to give an in-depth look at Kovalchuk, I’ll use stats from Behind The Net to show his impact during 5-on-5 play, powerplay opportunities and on the defensive side of the puck. In looking at these stats, I’ll show that Kovalchuk is still an elite winger who should be pursued, for the right price, by Lamoriello this offseason.
Kovalchuk During 5-on-5 Play
As we all know, Kovalchuk is a strong offensive player. Last year’s statistics only serve to strengthen this point. Kovalchuk averaged 1.46 goals per 60 minutes, 1.45 assists (primary or secondary) per 60 minutes, and 2.91 points per 60 minutes. These numbers ranked first on the Devils by a longshot. The only other Devil close to his per game production was, not surprisingly, Zach Parise.
But it’s not only his game statistics that prove his offensive worth. In the on ice/off ice plus/minus ratings (explanation here), Kovalchuk once again showed his offensive force. His +0.90 shows Kovalchuk, when on the ice, provided a positive impact on his team’s offensive production. When off the ice, the team’s production slipped, as Kovalchuk’s off-ice plus/minus sat at -0.33. These statistics continue to support Kovalchuk’s offensive abilities, even on a struggling offensive team like last season’s Devils.
Kovalchuk During 5-on-4 Powerplay
After acquiring Kovalchuk, former coach Jacques Lemaire stuck him right out on the point on the first powerplay line. Eventually, the forward spent the entire two minutes out on the ice, trying to maximize the powerplay’s efficiency. But the plan never seemed to work. The team only connected on 16.53% of their opportunities after acquiring Kovalchuk, dipping from the 19.02% success rate before the trade. While that lack of success doesn’t squarely sit on Kovalchuk’s shoulders, his powerplay stats from this past season show he wasn’t as valuable as many predicted he would be.
While on the ice during 5-on-4 opportunities, Kovalchuk put up solid numbers, with the goals for per 60 minutes at 6.17 and the shots for per 60 minutes at 38.3. While these are good numbers, they weren’t even the best on the team. Parise outplayed him last season, with his goals for at 9.02 and his shots for at 51.3. Kovalchuk wasn’t even the best offensive player on the team with the man advantage. Whether it was a lack of comfort or a lack of unfamiliarity with the system, Kovalchuk just couldn’t bring the Devils special teams to the next level and make them great.
Continue reading for an analysis of Kovalchuk’s defensive performance and my take on whether or not the Devils should resign the dangerous left-winger.
Kovalchuk During Defensive Play
Many analysts criticized Kovalchuk for his defensive play. They called him lazy, and many believed the left-winger would struggle in the defensive end with the Devils. Many analysts believed the team took a risk, and that Kovalchuk would struggle with the team for that reason alone. But Kovalchuk proved those analysts wrong, posting better defensive numbers than Evgeni Malkin.
While looking at Kovalchuk’s defensive play, I’ll use a stat called GVT. GVT (explained here) chronicles the goals versus threshold when a player is on the ice. A level of 0 represents an NHL replacement player, and regulars are expected to do better. With the Devils last season, Kovalchuk played to a 2.2 GVT rating. Now it’s not a great GVT rating, but it shows that Kovalchuk isn’t a complete liability in his own zone. He can contribute something defensively, which fits well with the Devils team-first philosophy.
The biggest question facing the Devils pursuit of Kovalchuk is this – how much money will the left-winger accept? With the recent acquisition of Jason Arnott, the Devils now have about $11 million in cap space left to spend. The team still needs to resign David Clarkson, which will take them below $10 million. It’s been reported that Kovalchuk will look for a deal upwards of that type of money per year. Signing Kovalchuk may handcuff the Devils for the future. Remember, the team will need to re-sign Zach Parise next year, and the contract of Martin Brodeur is also nearing its end.
Kovalchuk is a world-class player, and I think the Devils should put their efforts into resigning him. However, the team needs to be cautious with the asking price. The talent Kovalchuk brings to the table is great, but the team can use that $11 million to plug some holes along the blue line and possibly sign another capable scorer. While Kovalchuk is worth every penny, the Devils can’t afford to handicap themselves by overpaying for his services. As per this post by Gulitti, Kovalchuk would be looking to sign with a team like the Devils. But everything has a price, and I believe the Devils shouldn’t break the bank to keep Kovalchuk.