Home > Season Recap > The 2010-2011 Player Review: Ilya Kovalchuk

The 2010-2011 Player Review: Ilya Kovalchuk

Kovalchuk scored nine game-winning goals, tying him for fourth in the NHL. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Throughout the offseason, The Devils’ Den will break down the 2010-2011 Devils season. We’ll cover the big team stories, but also offer a breakdown of individual player performances. In today’s review, we focus on Ilya Kovalchuk.

Ilya Kovalchuk became the biggest story of the New Jersey Devils’ 2010-2011 season. The left-winger, prize of the summer’s free agent market, made news on both coasts. He reportedly entertained an offer from the Los Angeles Kings, even flying out to LA to meet with general manager Dean Lombardi. But they eventually broke off talks, leaving the Devils the only team left to sign Kovalchuk.

New Jersey did, handing Kovalchuk the keys to the franchise with a 17-year, $102 million dollar deal. The team and its fanbase celebrated, but the league didn’t feel so festive. They rejected the deal, citing the low back-end numbers and citing it as a “retirement” contract. That set off “The Kovalchuk Saga,” where phrases like “cap circumvention” became commonplace and everyone became an armchair arbitrator. Eventually, the team worked out a 15-year, $100 million deal that fit the league’s expectations. But it came with a price, as the Devils paid more than money for crossing Gary Bettman and the league for the first contract.

All that drama raised Kovalchuk’s expectations for this season. Fans expected him to produce immediately, and the team’s newly designed top line looked like an offensive juggernaut. But it never materialized, and Kovalchuk struggled during the first half. Ex-coach John MacLean scratched him for missing a meeting, and he continually tried to force his way through defenses. The low point came against the Buffalo Sabres, when Kovalchuk couldn’t even muster a shot attempt during the shootout:

Jacques Lemaire’s return revitalized the down-and-out Kovalchuk. He finally lived up to expectations, netting game-winning goals time and time again. His stickhandling and playmaking ability returned, and he found a way to involve his teammates. He even played defense, committing to an aspect of the game he routinely ignored. While he fell short of offensive expectations, Kovalchuk rebounded to produce the second-highest point total on the team. He became the weapon the Devils expected, almost leading them to a playoff berth.

Kovalchuk At Even Strength

The Devils’ left-winger played in 81 games this season, third most among forwards. His time on ice number ranked first among forwards at 17.66. We all know about his miserable first half of the season, driving his player rating down to minus-0.77. He played against solid competition (plus-.004 competition rating) but had a better quality of teammates (plus-0.140) all season long.

Kovalchuk’s offensive showing wasn’t impressive, but a terrible first half submarined those numbers. He accounted for 49 goals for, or 2.06 per 60. He was on the ice for 69 goals against, a total of 2.89 per 60. The on-ice plus/minus total of minus-0.84 wasn’t terrible considering his terrible first half, when he put up a minus-15 rating in December alone. He also helped generate offense, tallying 25.8 shots for per 60.

The numbers dropped across the board with Kovalchuk off the ice. Goals for fell to 1.78 with him off the ice, goals against dropped to 1.85 per 60 and his off-ice plus/minus dropped to minus-0.07. The shots for rose to 26.3 per 60 and fell to 22.6 against per 60.

The Corsi numbers show Kovalchuk’s largely neutral impact on the offense. On the ice, he recorded a plus-2.56 rating, helping drive shots towards the opponents net. But all of those turnovers and lost opportunities drove that rating down. Off the ice, the team put up a 4.98 Corsi rating. Other lines simplified their attack, cycling and generating more offensive opportunities.

Kovalchuk’s second half helped to improve those numbers, but only slightly. The first half killed his overall production and gave little hope to any positive numbers. He played well during the second half of the season, but his even strength numbers are unimpressive.

Kovalchuk was on the ice for 20 powerplay goals, contributing to 21% of the Devils total powerplay offense. Photo Credit: Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Kovalchuk On The Powerplay

The Devils expected their powerplay to dramatically improve when they acquired Kovalchuk last season. Yet the team struggled once again to produce with their special teams, with him bearing the brunt of the blame. His time on ice sat at 3.99, by far the most among skaters with 50 games played. It makes sense, as he routinely spent the entire powerplay manning the point. The extra time was no help, with Kovalchuk recording a minus-3.11 rating. He couldn’t finish in the green despite playing against weaker competition (minus-0.029 rating) and with positive quality of teammates (plus-0.003).

On the ice, Kovalchuk did help production. His team scored 20 goals with him on the ice, meaning he somehow contributed to 21% of New Jersey’s total offensive output. His 3.72 goals for rating, however, ranked lower than Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac, who contributed less to the total offense. We all witnessed his struggles on the point, where pucks routinely skipped over his stick. Penalty killers also beat him out of the zone, and Kovalchuk was on the ice for six shorthanded goals against. He posted a plus/minus rating of plus-2.60, and he helped the team average 46.4 shots per 60. Like even strength, the team improved in almost every facet with Kovalchuk on the bench.

There weren’t many times when Kovalchuk sat on the bench during the powerplay. In those limited opportunities, the offense actually improved. Goals for shot up to 6.67 per 60, and goals against dropped to 0.95. Kovalchuk’s off-ice plus/minus rose to a robust plus-5.71. Shots for did drop, but only to 42.9, less than a two shot difference.

Despite all the negativity, Corsi actually plays into Kovalchuk’s favor. On the ice, he recorded a plus-86.94 rating. Off the ice, that number took a nosedive, falling to plus-63.81. Clearly, Kovalchuk did help generate shots and earned opportunities to score. But he couldn’t help to push his numbers to better (and positive) heights. Instead, he lagged behind teammates who spent less time on the ice. That fact alone can skew the numbers, so take that into account.

For all intents and purposes, Kovalchuk didn’t live up to expectations with the man advantage. During his seven seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk recorded less than 30 powerplay points twice. With New Jersey, he hasn’t cracked that plateau yet. Blame the system or his teammates, but he needs to produce more with the man advantage.

It's the Kovalchuk-ian death stare. We'd love to see more of that next season. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Conclusion

We’ve all piled on Kovalchuk in the past season and a half. It’s the nature of the beast. The Devils expected to get a top-flight scorer, and the first half gave no indication that was the player the team signed. Even with an offensive-minded coach, Kovalchuk struggled to show any of his natural abilities.

Somehow, Lemaire changed all that. He brought out the best in Kovalchuk. Soon he started pouring in goals and racking in points. Kovalchuk recorded just 20 points through the season’s first three months. He doubled the production in the second half of the season, totaling 40 points and scoring 22 goals. He scored six game-winning goals in February and March, reprising the hero role time and time again. Every goal brought the crowd to it’s feet and an Alex Ovechkin-worthy celebration from the Russian left-winger.

The second half of the season showed the true Kovalchuk. This is the player the Devils signed – a true scorer and a talented player. He kept everyone on the edge of their seat and continually presented a threat on the ice. This was the Kovalchuk everyone expected, and it was by far his best stretch in a Devils uniform.

Despite all of his second half success, Kovalchuk still fell short of expectations. This season marked the first time in seven seasons he failed to score 35+ goals. His minus-26 rating was by far the worst of his career. And his powerplay production once again sagged below expected levels. However, he still managed to put together a 12 game point streak and finished tied for fourth with his nine game-winning goals.

The final number I present is Kovalchuk’s GVT – 8.3. That number, good for second on the team, shows Kovalchuk accounts for nearly eight more goals than a replacement player. For as much criticism he takes for his defense, he finished with positive 2.2 GVT in his own zone. While fans will continue to whether he carries a playoff curse and if he can reach his Thrashers levels with the Devils, the left-winger will quietly continue to improve his game.

I believe we’re seeing Kovalchuk scratch the surface of his impact on the organization. Hopefully he’ll improve and carry this team back to playoff success.

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  1. May 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm

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