Topics To Watch: Pressure Is On For Kovalchuk To Perform

By Pat Pickens

Whenever I compare Ilya Kovalchuk to non-hockey fans, I always refer to him as the NHL’s version of Alex Rodriguez.

Ilya Kovalchuk led the Devils in scoring in 2011-12. If the Devils are to return to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013, Kovalchuk will have to be at his best.

Ilya Kovalchuk led the Devils in scoring in 2011-12. If the Devils are to return to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013, Kovalchuk will have to be at his best. (Picture Courtesy-FutureNJGov/Wikimedia Commons)

In some ways, it’s a bit ambitious to make that claim. Rodriguez is arguably the greatest baseball player of our generation and a household name. Kovalchuk, on the other hand, has never even recorded a 100-point season and is regularly overshadowed by names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Lundqvist in terms of brand.

Yet Kovalchuk, like Rodriguez, is saddled by the weight of a long and pricy contract — and will be for the foreseeable future. The NHL just locked out thanks to deals like Kovalchuk’s 15-year, $100 million contract, the longest and third-richest deal the league’s ever approved. Ovechkin is the only forward to receive a more lucrative deal.

When Kovalchuk is on, he’s clearly amongst the league’s elite. He logged the most ice-time of any Devil last season, leading the team in goals (37), points (83), and shots (310). Kovalchuk registered team-highs with eight goals and 19 points in the Devils’ Stanley Cup Finals run a year ago, despite a nagging back injury that hampered him in their six-game series loss to Los Angeles.

Some would argue, and have, that Kovalchuk hurt his back in the Devils’ 2010 playoff “appearance” trying to carry New Jersey’s offense on his back. There-in lies Kovalchuk’s “A-Rodian” tendency. The Russian-sniper’s confidence wanes when he doesn’t score  and on the biggest stage, some argue he tries too hard.

In 2010-11, with Zach Parise sidelined for all but 13 games, Kovalchuk recorded his lowest scoring output since his rookie season. With Parise departing for Minnesota’s greener pastures, the onus is on Kovalchuk to lead the Devils offensively.

There’s little margin for error, thanks to a 48-game season and Petr Sykora’s departure. The pressure is even more considering the Devils’ run to the Finals last year. Kovalchuk hasn’t exactly placated Devils fans, either, through his “will he or won’t he” KHL/NHL saga.

But, if New Jersey has visions of a repeat Finals appearance and dreams of drinking from Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2013, Kovalchuk will need to be the guy.

Pat Pickens is a lifelong Devils-fan and New Jersey native. To pay the bills, he works as a sports reporter for Hearst in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter here, send him an email at patp@devilsinsiders.com

1 Comment

  1. Joseph Stanislau

    Ilya is a much classier guy than A-Rod.

    When the Lamoriello acquired Ilya (Kovalchuk) in February of the 2009-2010 season he knew how to push this teams odds for the playoffs to be sooner than later. Brent Sutter wasn’t his kind of coach and then when he left, Jon MacLane’s philosophy didn’t help Ilya much and led to me seeing in person his dreadful shootout failure against Buffalo (I was pissed like many other fans). During the late 2010-2011 half Jacques Lemaire brought Ilya back to his successful form and installed his 2-way player process which wasn’t finished until Pete DeBoer came in 2011-2012.

    I think the coaching staff’s over the year have been a successful trend that Pete is staying behind the bench trying to get that Jack Adams Trophy, and has the desire to get that Stanley Cup. I feel after Ilya learned well from Adam Oates on the PP and benefited well under Larry Robinson’s tutoring.

    Even though Ilya is a forward I think with the presence of Scott Stevens, he will make Ilya more of a defender on his retreat back and make the Devils neutral zone trap very complicated to be beaten. Also I think with Matt Shaw being a very successful PP coach it will help Ilya ease into a stronger unity with guys stepping in Parise’s spot (he was a great forechecker).

    This teams seems very capable of having 10 guys above 15 goals and possibly 3-4 guys with 35 goals on average. It’s all about sharing the wealth of the scoring and taking pressure off Ilya. He can’t do everything, and everyone has to step up.

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