New Jersey Devils: 6 Players Who Need to Step Up During Ilya Kovalchuk's Absence
Ilya Kovalchuk, the New Jersey Devils' star right-winger, left Saturday night's game against the Florida Panthers with a shoulder injury. According to The Bergen Record (h/t Katie Strang of ESPN), it was revealed today that, while x-rays are negative, Kovy will still miss somewhere between two and four weeks.
The injury will be sure to hurt the Devils: Kovalchuk is second on the team in goals (10), assists (17), points and shots (113). He is tied for team lead in game-winning goals with four, and his four shorthanded goals lead the league.
Kovy also plays more than 25 minutes a game, a full three minutes more than any other forward in the league. Only 11 defensemen play more minutes than him.
The injury comes at a difficult time, with the Devils just four points in front of ninth place. The team has back-to-back wins and was finding some momentum for the first time in weeks. With their most talented player out, it's time for some other guys to step up.
All statistics obtained via NHL.com, Hockey-Reference.com and Devils.nhl.com.
Travis Zajac began the season as the Devils' top-line center. Expectations were high for him, with his new eight-year, $46 million contract extension. Sadly, Zajac's season has not been nearly as productive as many fans hoped for.
He has just five goals and eight assists in 32 games, and his biggest contribution, so far, has been his 56.6 faceoff win percentage.
The good news is that Zajac may have recently turned a corner; he is riding a three-game point streak during which he's had a goal and four assists, along with a plus-two rating. It's a small showing so far, but he's looking more like the 20-goal, 40-assist skater fans are familiar with.
If he can continue to produce at a top-line rate, Zajac could prove crucial to a playoff push. His ability to develop chemistry could very well dictate whether the team is around for the postseason or not.
It's got to be reassuring to the Devils that they still have Patrik Elias; the career Devil has been the team's most consistent offensive weapon for the past 13 years. He's had 10 20-goal seasons in that time and eight 60-point seasons—including a career-high 40 goals and 56 assists in 2001.
Well, the good news is that Patty is up to it again this season, leading the team with 19 assists, 29 points and a plus-eight rating. He's spent much of the season on a line with the Devils' leading goal scorer, David Clarkson, and has been a big part of the Devils' successes this season.
This won't be the first time Elias will be asked to lead the team offensively, merely the most recent. Even so, an aging Elias will have to feel the effects of time at some point, and fans will just have to hope that he can see the team through their current worries.
Andrei Loktionov was traded by the Devils from the Los Angeles Kings in early February. The Devils gave up a fifth-round pick to acquire the young Russian forward, and he's quickly emerged as a great pickup.
In his 15 games with the Devils, Loktionov already has five goals and three assists. He even worked his way up to centering the top line between Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Loktionov has a lot of skating ability and a great shot, and he fits in perfectly with the Devils' system. Now though, there will be extra pressure. Loktionov has the top-six opportunity, now he's got to show that he can do it without a superstar on his wing.
There may be a drop in his production to start, but taking on a larger role could prove fruitful: His five goals have come on just 19 shots.
Adam Henrique has had a streaky season. The Devils' young center began his season on the IR, but quickly showed off why he was finalist for the Calder trophy last season, scoring four goals and adding two assists in his first seven games.
He then hit an eight-game stretch where he had one assist and a minus-three rating. He rebounded, getting hot again and scoring five times along with an assist in seven games. And then he cooled off again. In his last five games, Henrique has a goal and a minus-three rating.
When he's on, Henrique is a quality two-way player who can contribute in any situation. But as often as not, he fails to make an impression during a game. With Ilya Kovalchuk out, Henrique will be leaned on as one of the team's primary scorers.
He has the ability, and he's shown it in spurts, but he needs to impress for an extended period of time if he really wants to help the team.
Alexei Ponikarovsky was traded to the Devils in late January of last season. In 33 regular-season games, he contributed seven goals and 11 assists while also amassing a plus-nine rating. He remained a contributor throughout the team's playoff run and finished the playoffs with a goal and eight assists.
During the offseason, Poni left the team via free agency and signed with the Winnipeg Jets. However, it only took until February for him to be traded back to the Devils. Sadly, he has not been able to replicate his success last season.
Ponikarovsky has played 17 games with the Devils this season, and he's managed just one goal and five total points. He does have a plus-one rating, but after spending time on the top line with Andrei Loktionov and Ilya Kovalchuk, he should have more to show for his effort.
If Poni doesn't start impacting games more, he may find himself with a reduced role—and possibly even on the trade block.
Perhaps, it's unfair to have Matt D'Agostini on this list. After all, he's been a member of the Devils organization for less than four days.
D'Agostini is going to need to get his Devils career off to a hot start, though. The winger had his best season in 2010-11 with the St. Louis Blues, when he managed 21 goals and 25 assists with a plus-eight rating in a full 82 games. That season, the 24-year-old showed what he was capable of.
He's cooled off since then, with a total of just 20 points since that season, and he has just a goal and an assist in 16 games with the Blues this season.
D'Agostini made his debut for the Devils against Florida, and he played nearly 10 minutes while managing two shots. His name remained off the score sheet, but as a first game, it was acceptable. Now, it's time for him to build on that with a string of games where he shows off what kind of offense he can bring to the team.