The New Jersey Devils knew what they were getting when they traded for Ilya Kovalchuk at the deadline in 2010a one way player who, if nothing else, would put up numbers. And according to plan, in the 27 regular season games and six playoff games that Kovalchuk played for the Devils in 2009-10, he scored 33 points in 32 games, enough to earn a 15-year, $100 million contract from New Jersey. But in the first full year of his deal, Kovy did not look much like a player deserving of a deal that will take him through several presidential terms.
The star forward scored 31 goals with 29 assists in 81 games. Perhaps worse, he finished the season minus-26. These were all career lows when playing more than 65 games. His 60 points was 22 short of his average per 82 games (he played 81 in 2010-11, as he was benched for one game). This coming with Kovalchuk leading the NHL in ice time for forwards.
Looking closer, he went a through very un-Kovalchuk-like slump early in the 2010-11 season. Between October 27 and December 11, he scored two goals. He was minus-14 during that span.
Then on December 23, his coach was fired. After John MacLean was let go, Kovalchuk netted 23 goals in 48 games. That stat alone gives some level of confidence that as long as he is healthy (and he usually is, considering that he blocked a whopping 12 shots last season and laid out only 28 total hits) Kovalchuk should come back to point-per-game, 40-plus-goal form.
Kovy had a few other things working against him in his first season as a Devil. While his shot percentage was lower than usual (12% compared to 14.6% career), his total shots were also a career low. The forward took just 245 shots in 81 games, which was 30 fewer than his previous career low of 275 in 79 games.
There were five games where he played more than 19 minutes and didn't take a single shot. There were 10 games where he took only one shot and played more than 19 minutes. In his last full season with Atlanta, 2008-09, there were only two games he didn't take a shot and five where he took one.
The Devils' horrible power play also cost Kovalchuk some production. Known as one of the bestif not the bestpower play point men in the game, Kovy only scored nine man-advantage goals, his lowest since 2002-03 and well short of his career high in 2005-06 of 27 power play goals. There's a simple reason for his reduced power play production: he wasn't on the ice on the power play as often.
In 2009-10, Kovalchuk averaged 5:24 of ice time per game on the power play. He led the NHL in that category. During his 27 power play goal season? More than eight minutes per game. But last year, the former number one overall pick spent just 4:10 on the ice during the power play. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the reason he wasn't on the ice was New Jersey was dead last in the NHL in total power play time. In fact, they were last behind the Ottawa Senators by 22 minutes and trailed league leaders Carolina by 160 minutes.
That number will change next season, at least to some extent. Zach Parise only played 13 games for the Devils last year. Parise was one of the best at drawing penalties in the NHL in 2009-10. He has also been a consistent force on the power play for the Devils since 2006-07, averaging more than 10 power play goals per season. Parise scored zero in his 13 games in 2010-11. His presence will undoubtedly help Kovalchuk return to form.
The Devils' $100 million man will have a new coach to work with, Peter DeBoer. While coaching the Florida Panthers, DeBoer's clubs rarely cracked the top 25 in power play scoring (they were dead last in 2010-11). Of course, the Panthers were very short on talent. Nonetheless, DeBoer's coaching is a wild card as to whether Kovalchuk can get back to 40 goals.
Because of his contract and his reputation as being unwilling to scrap, Kovalchuk has become an easy punching bag for fans and media. Not all is undeserved. He was benched after showing up late to a meeting before a late October game with the Buffalo Sabres. He didn't play much of a two-way game and didn't perform when his team was slumping and needed him most.
That said, Kovalchuk should be better this season if for nothing else, he'll simply more opportunities to do what he does best: shoot the puck.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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