Under the Radar: Ilya Kovalchuk

Mark MarinoSenior Analyst INovember 19, 2007

IconAt just 24 years old, Atlanta Thrashers left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk is one of the most electrifying, yet overlooked players in the NHL today.

Entering his sixth season with the Thrashers, Kovalchuk has consistently put up sick offensive numbers, yet seems to be unnoticed by the masses.

Despite leading the NHL in goals scored this season (17 in 20 games played) and fourth in points (29) Ilya is still playing in the shadows of other NHL stars, like Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier, and former teammate Dany Heatley.

Atlanta drafted Kovalchuk in 2001-02 season with the first overall pick, making Ilya the first Russian born player drafted first in NHL history. A co-winner of the Maurice 'Rocket' Richard award in 2004 (a trophy awarded to the league leader in goals), Kovalchuk has averaged over 40 goals per season over the course of his career, and is on pace for 69 this year.

Oh, and he's 100 percent in shootout attempts this season, too.

Still not sold on this kid? How about this: If Ilya keeps this pace up, averaging over 40 goals per season, he'll hit the 500 goal mark before he reaches his 30th birthday, making him one of the youngest players in NHL history to reach this remarkable milestone. The other players: Wayne Gretzky & Mike Bossy

Striking fear in the hearts of all NHL goaltenders, defensemen, and coaches, Kovalchuk has quietly turned himself into the NHL's most dangerous scorer. With a wicked slap-shot and uncanny speed which allows him to skate with virtually anyone in the league, this 6'1" phenom is the mirror-image of fellow countryman and former NHL great Pavel Bure.

The main difference between Ilya and the Russian Rocket is the physical play that Kovalchuk possesses. The 24-year-old can throw his 230-pound body around with the best of them, and is willing to drop his gloves when necessary.

Playing for a mediocre team—and an expansion team to boot—may explain Kovalchuk's lack of popularity. Another factor might be the arrival of younger studs in the league, like Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin.

Once known as an immature scorer who lacked two-way-play, Kovalchuk has shed that old image over the last few seasons.  An All-Star in 2004, an NHL All-Rookie Team member in 2002, and a YoungStars Game MVP, Kovalchuk's popularity is slowly on the rise.

It won't be long before Ilya Kovalchuk becomes a household name, and it will certainly be fun to watch.