Home > Devils At The Break > Devils At The Break: The Failures Of Ilya Kovalchuk

Devils At The Break: The Failures Of Ilya Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk failed to live up to the expectations of his 15-year, $100 million contract during the first half of the season. Photo Credit: Jenniffer Brown/The Star-Ledger

This will be a regular feature during the Devils’ five game All-Star break. In this feature, we’ll look at overall team news, discuss individual player performances, and give expectations for the second half of the season. You can find all these articles under the “Devils At The Break” category located on the sidebar.

It’s been a tough start to Ilya Kovalchuk‘s 15-year, $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils.

Kovalchuk, the crowning jewel of the Devils’ offseason, has yet to produce Kovalchukian numbers. His goal scoring, once great, seems to disappear. His creativity was stymied by opposing defenses every game. His defensive effort slipped. Worse, he was a healthy scratch for being late to a meeting.

With Jacques Lemaire behind the bench, Kovalchuk improved dramatically. But even with his improvement, the first half has been one of both frustration and disappointment for Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk’s season began ominously during the summer, when his contract created a two month mini-drama. On July 19, New Jersey announced it signed Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract. The deal, the longest in NHL history, faced several challenges. While the players association approved the deal, the league rejected the deal because of cap circumvention. That kicked off a summer of arbitration hearings, contract negotiations and rampant rumors. Eventually, the contract passed, but not without amendments from the league and various fines for the Devils.

With “The Kovalchuk Saga” over, the team could finally focus on working Kovalchuk into the offense. Head coach John MacLean decided to stack his first line and move Kovalchuk to the right-wing. The possibility of complete offensive dominance raced through the minds of fans and analysts. The combination seemed to work, as the line opened the season with two goals against the Dallas Stars. That, however, would be the height of their success.

As the season wore on, Kovalchuk shifted around the entire lineup. His offense was nowhere to be found, and MacLean attempted to jump start him by any means. Kovalchuk played with every line, often double-shifted. But his goal production continued to spiral downward. It all culminated in one of the most disappointing moments of the season, during a shootout:

That failed attempt summarized Kovalchuk’s struggles in a singular moment. One of the most talented scorers no longer had confidence in himself.

Ilya Kovalchuk, horrible with John MacLean behind the bench, has flourished under Jacques Lemaire. Photo Credit: Lou Capozzola/Getty Images

For fans, it was one frustrating mistake after another. With Kovalchuk’s confidence shot, fans booed him mercilessly for every mistake. He passed too much, shot too little and left everyone wondering what happened to this great scorer.

Kovalchuk’s work ethic never wavered during his struggles. He continually watched video, took extra practice and attempted to get better. He never felt his play acceptable, and continually worked to fix it. His luck, however, never seemed to click.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Since Lemaire took over, Kovalchuk’s play improved dramatically. Lemaire opened his door to Kovalchuk, and the left-winger took full advantage. The first thing Lemaire did was to try and get Kovalchuk to relax on the ice.

“He told me a couple of things that I should change and he just old me relax,” Kovalchuk told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “It’s tough to relax when your team isn’t doing well and you (aren’t doing well). You squeeze the stick a little harder when you don’t have to.”

Kovalchuk’s on-ice performance improved with Lemaire. In his past 16 games, Kovalchuk recorded 11 points (six goals, five assists), including three multi-point games. His shot looks better, his play flows, and he looks comfortable on the ice. He’s also drawn rave reviews from fellow teammates for his defensive play, something he believes Lemaire helped him realize.

“He always say that if you’re going to do the good defensive play, you get more chances,” Kovalchuk told Gulitti. “Sometimes you try to cheat a little bit and get a step on the guy and go up front, but it never works this year so far.”

The year isn’t a complete waste. If Kovalchuk continues to improve, he could reach the 30-goal plateau. It would be his lowest goal total since the 2001-02 season, but it could propel him going forward. His ugly minus-29 rating should continue to decrease as well.

We all expect the real Kovalchuk to appear after the All-Star break. It seems Kovalchuk hit rock bottom. There’s nowhere to go but up.

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