Streaking Kovalchuk starting to earn his money from Devils

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Take Ilya Kovalchuk’s statistics for the entire season and a fan might think he’s been an incredible disappointment. Chances are you wouldn’t have found much argument for the first three months of the season—especially not from Devils fans themselves. But going into tonight’s game against the equally hot Boston Bruins, the Devils (and Kovalchuk) are rapidly becoming the biggest story in the NHL.

The last two months have been something completely different for fans in the Garden State. Starting with a back-to-back against Tampa Bay on January 9th, New Jersey has looked like a completely different team. We’re talking polar opposites like if the Oilers woke up tomorrow morning and started playing like the Vancouver Canucks for the next couple of months. Everything has been different. Instead of watching the puck fill up their own net, the Devils have tightened up in their own zone and are playing the style of hockey that has made them one of the most successful teams over the last 15 years.

That small $100 million acquisition they made in the offseason? He’s starting to earn his way, as well.

Matthew Barnaby said over the weekend that Ilya Kovalchuk has been the best player in the entire league over the last two months. The key to his statement was that he’s been one of the league’s best “players,” not one of the league’s best “scorers.” Since Jacques Lemaire has taken the helm in New Jersey, Kovalchuk has been responsible in his own end and has cut down on the cherry-picking that would put his teammates at a disadvantage in their own zone. Obviously he’ll never been a Selke Trophy type player, but when he’s not a liability in the defensive zone the team thrives as a whole.

Kovalchuk’s dedication to being a more well-rounded player while keeping his explosiveness hasn’t gone unnoticed. Lemaire is certainly pleased to have him around:

“Kovy is a different player. Kovy can do a lot of things on his own. He’s got a knack for scoring and making plays. That’s why he’s getting so much money.”

The numbers back up the coach. Since the team has turned things around, Kovalchuk has been leading the charge offensively. During the Devils 18-2-2 stretch, the Russian has 12 goals, 12 assists, and owns a +12 rating. Not too bad considering he only had 10 goals, 21 points, and a -30 rating through the first 40 games of the season.

Everyone knows the Devils have been a completely different team—but it’s time to take notice that Kovalchuk has been a completely different player. He has 5 game-winning goals in the last 11 games; his 8 game-winning goals are 2nd in the league trailing only Alexander Ovechkin. Not too bad for a team that couldn’t win early in the season. When the Devils win, one of the major reasons is because Ilya Kovalchuk is scoring.

When the Devils are on their game, everyone knows they’ll play low-scoring contests and will have a very small margin for error. When they can get their superstar to score a point-per-game and hold the opposition to under 2 goals, they’re going to win quite a few games—like 18 out of 22. When a player is putting his team on his back, he’s a difference maker.

A $100 million difference maker.

Report: Former Canucks bench boss Desjardins to coach Canada at Olympics

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Willie Desjardins’ time behind the Canucks bench ended in April, following three seasons, one playoff appearance, two years in which they finished near the bottom of the standings, and plenty of questions about deployment issues and his usage of younger players.

However, it seems he’ll soon find himself back behind the bench.

According to Steve Simmons of Postmedia, Desjardins is expected to be named coach of Team Canada for the upcoming 2018 Olympics. Nothing has been announced from Hockey Canada.

Desjardins has experience coaching on the international stage. He was an assistant working with Pat Quinn when Canada took gold in the 2009 World Juniors, and was the head coach the following year when Canada took silver.

Now, it will be interesting to see how respective hockey nations fill out their Olympic rosters for 2018. The NHL has announced its schedule for the upcoming season — cementing the fact the league will not be participating in South Korea.

Based on earlier reports, Canada will look to build a roster with players competing in Europe and in the American Hockey League.

Related: In farewell to Vancouver, Desjardins defends his approach to young players

Patrick thinks he can make immediate NHL jump with Flyers

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The New Jersey Devils opted for Nico Hischier over Nolan Patrick, but time will be the ultimate judge in that debate. The Philadelphia Flyers also might see their guy make a more immediate jump to the NHL.

Patrick made it clear: he wants to go straight from the 2017 NHL Draft to training camp to opening night in 2017-18.

“Yeah, I think after a good summer of training, that’s my goal,” Patrick said.

The second pick of the draft noted not just his size, but also his two-way acumen when explaining why he believes he’s ready for the immediate turnaround. Patrick also brings up an interesting point: he’s already experienced three years of junior. He didn’t come out and say it, but the implication would be that his development might stagnate against lesser competition.

MORE: Check out all 31 first-round picks here

CSN Philly’s Tim Panaccio got that same sense from Patrick in a one-on-one interview, and noted that the consensus is that he’ll make a difference from Game 1.

Scouts are unanimous in predicting Patrick will play this season in the NHL. He turns 19 during training camp.

One might read the decision to trade Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues as the Flyers’ way of agreeing that Patrick is probably ready, yet GM Ron Hextall wouldn’t just come out and say it. While praising Patrick, Hextall noted that he’ll need to “get to work” and earn a spot.

The odds seem to be in Patrick’s favor, but perhaps it’s better to see him battle for it.

Either way, don’t expect a long wait.

After major changes, Bowman believes Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

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CHICAGO — Stan Bowman received a lot of kudos for getting the old Blackhawks defense together for another kick at the can.

But the way it played out, bringing back two aging veterans in Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya was a mistake by the general manager. The magic just couldn’t be recreated, and Chicago was swept in the first round by the Nashville Predators.

Then came the offseason changes. Not just on the blue line, either. Brandon Saad is back, while Artemi Panarin is gone. Marian Hossa is gone, too — a huge loss for the ‘Hawks, even if he can be put on LTIR.

So the forward group is going to look quite different next season.

The blue line could look very different, though. Oduya and Campbell are both unrestricted free agents and may not be back. Trevor van Riemsdyk was lost in the expansion draft. And last but not least, Niklas Hjalmarsson is a Coyote now, traded to Arizona for d-man Connor Murphy.

In other words, of the six defensemen who lost to the Predators, only Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are still under contract in Chicago.

“A lot of stuff going on,” Bowman said Friday at United Center. “Sometimes, change is good. You have to make some tough decisions. But at the same time, we’re really excited about our team next year.”

Much will be expected of Murphy, a 24-year-old who’s been toiling in Arizona anonymity since being drafted 20th overall in 2011.

“Connor’s a little bit of a different player (than Hjalmarsson),” said Bowman. “Obviously, he’s a bit bigger, he plays probably a more physical game. But he’s a good skater and he’s six years younger. It’s really hard to find young defensemen like that. He’s got a great contract, too. He’s a guy we’re going to have for a long time.”

Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling will also be expected to take on bigger roles in 2017-18.

“It’s up to them to take hold of it, but I think the opportunity is going to be there for them,” said Bowman. “It’s time to give these guys a chance to grow and take on bigger responsibilities.”

Speaking of young defensemen, the Blackhawks added another to their stable Friday, drafting Henri Jokiharju with the 29th overall pick.

“Henri’s a player we’ve been high on all year,” said Bowman. “A right-shot defenseman. Those are a commodity in today’s game. It’s hard to find them. He plays a modern style of hockey. Great skill-set, good skater, can handle the puck, make plays. I guess what you would term the modern-day defenseman.”

As for Bowman, he believes his big moves have been made. He promised changes, and changes he delivered.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” he said.

Related: Blackhawks sign Czech defenseman Jan Rutta

Penguins spend big to get bigger, land Reaves from Blues

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Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said he wanted to add some snarl to protect stars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. You won’t find many – if any – forces more intimidating than Ryan Reaves.

That’s who the Penguins reportedly acquired in a trade from the St. Louis Blues, who suddenly became very busy toward the end of the 2017 NHL Draft’s first round on Friday.

MORE: Blues acquire Brayden Schenn for Jori Lehtera, picks

Moments ago, Gary Bettman announced the details of the move.

Penguins receive: Reaves, 51st pick of 2017

Blues receive: Oskar Sundqvist, 31st pick of 2017

Penguins’ perspective

Rutherford believed that the NHL was allowing teams to take liberties with star players, particularly Crosby and Malkin. Even after winning consecutive Stanley Cups, it was clearly something important to him.

Rutherford reiterated that thought after the move.

One can debate how much an enforcer such as Reaves really “deters” such behavior, especially since he won’t be on the ice with star players in most close situations. There’s little denying that he’s a fearsome fighter, with six in 2016-17 and as many as 10 in a single season.

Reaves carries a $1.125 million cap hit that expires after 2017-18.

A busy night for Doug Armstrong

Moments ago, the Blues drafted Kim Klostin with the 31st pick, grabbing a player some expected to go much earlier in the first round.

They also acquired Oskar Sundqvist, the 81st pick of the 2012 NHL Draft. The 23-year-old was unable to score a point in 10 games with the Penguins last season, but he was productive in the AHL, scoring 20 goals and 46 points.

Blues GM Doug Armstrong absorbed some serious criticism for protecting Reaves instead of David Perron, but now both players are gone. One would assume that’s likely by design, although it’s also possible that the Penguins simply provided an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Armstrong made another big splash by sending Jori Lehtera and draft picks to the Philadelphia Flyers for Brayden Schenn. Getting the 31st pick was helpful for the Blues after they sent the 27th choice to Philly.