Ilya Kovalchuk came to the New Jersey Devils with a reputation as an extremely talented, yet selfish player. Three years later, only the talented part remains. With his play and demeanor during the Devils' run to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, Kovalchuk not only buried the "selfish" label, he obliterated it. This season has been more of the same, as the Devils alternate captain has found ways to contribute even when he's not leading the team in scoring.
When he was acquired in February 2010, playing Kovalchuk on the penalty kill would have been virtually unthinkable. That season, his shorthanded time on ice (SHTOI) averaged out to four seconds per game (a paltry 0.3 percent of his ice time), basically just long enough to get on the ice and get in position as the power play was expiring. Fast forward to 2012, and Kovalchuk's SHTOI skyrocketed to 4.9 percent, a career high. Additionally, his contributions on the penalty kill go beyond smothering puck handlers, as his NHL-leading two short-handed goals (including this gem vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning last week) attest.
Besides his improved defensive play, the big Russian's leadership last season was a big reason the Devils were able to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. That leadership has contributed to New Jersey's fast start to this abbreviated season.
"Kovy's on board, Kovy's doing a lot of little things the right way that are helping us win games," head coach Pete DeBoer said after practice last week. "You can't lose sight of all the good things he's doing. He's killing penalties for us, his work in his own end has been very good, he's been back checking hard for us."
Kovalchuk's workload is also notable, as he's currently ranked 10th in the NHL in ice time, including first among forwards, averaging 26 minutes per game. It's a number that DeBoer would eventually like to see come down, but the head coach admitted that right now Kovalchuk is needed on the ice.
"It's more than we would like. I think when we got to the point late in the season and playoffs last year when we were rolling four lines, he was about the 20:00 to 22:00 mark, which I think he can handle, but we haven't gotten ourselves to that spot yet," DeBoer explained.
Also telling is the fact that, despite his pedestrian four-goal output thus far, he's registered a sterling plus-five rating. Still, Kovalchuk remains humble and deflects praise onto his teammates whenever possible.
"It was good play by both of us, me and Travis [Zajac] because if he wouldn't have skated I wouldn't have had much room," Kovalchuk said of his shorthanded goal vs. Tampa Bay. "When the team's winning, it doesn't really matter who's scoring."
Ilya Kovalchuk is clearly the most talented goal scorer on the Devils' roster, and that won't change in the foreseeable future. However, he has proven that he's much more than a one-dimensional player. When he does go on a goal-scoring streak, New Jersey's opponents will have their hands full. Until then, he'll continue to contribute in every other facet of the game.