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.