By: Adam Gretz
The trade that sent Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils prior to the trade deadline two years ago may prove to be the best thing that has happened to him in his NHL career.
Not only because the Devils have given him an opportunity to play on what has been a consistent playoff team (something his previous team, the Atlanta Thrashers, was not) but also because his time in New Jersey has resulted in him becoming a better, and more complete player.
Kovalchuk has been on a roll offensively for the Devils over the past couple of weeks, and thanks to his three-goal, four-point effort against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night he's recorded nine points in his past five games for a Devils team that looks as if it's going to return to the postseason after a difficult first half kept them out of the playoffs a year ago, and a lot of that has been due to the play of Kovalchuk.
His current per-game averages for the season would give him 40 goals and 90 points over an 82-game season, which is pretty much what we've grown to expect from him offensively.
But he's not doing it the same way he used to do it in Atlanta. Just watching him you can notice a difference in the way he plays when he doesn't have the puck, but he's also seen role and value expand beyond just goal-scoring. It's not uncommon to see him on the ice late in games with the Devils protecting leads, and he's taking on more responsibility. Even though his total ice-time per game is about the same (around 21-22 minutes) it's being spread out across the board a bit more.
His power play time is down and his even strength and, perhaps most surprising, his shorthanded minutes are up. Way up.
Only once over the past six seasons did he finish a season averaging more than 15 seconds of shorthanded time per game (and that was when he averaged 23 seconds back in 2007-08).
This season he's playing over a minute per game on one of the best penalty killing units in the league, and during his 60 minutes of shorthanded play Kovalchuk is a plus-four on the season, having been on the ice for five Devils shorthanded goals (scoring three of them himself and assisting on the other two) and only one power play goal against. There are only seven other players with a minimum of 30 games played in the NHL this season that are "plus" players during 4-on-5 play, and only one of them (Pittsburgh's Kris Letang) has played more than 23 minutes of total shorthanded ice time this season.
I don't know if a 15-year contract like the one New Jersey signed Kovalchuk to prior to last season is always the right investment for a team, but with the way his game has evolved in a short period of time, he should continue to be the franchise building block the Devils expected when they acquired him.
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