Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Curse of Ilya Kovalchuk Smites the Devils

The New Jersey Devils swung into the Consol Monday night and became just the latest grist for the Penguins mill. As to the Devils biggest name, Ilya Kovalchuk, he spent an uninspiring 24 minutes or so on the ice, posting a minus 2 on the night and putting just three shots on net, the first of which came 43 minutes into the game.

Kovalchuk has just five goals and only 11 points in 26 games. I don't think this is what the Devils had in mind at the 2009-2010 trade deadline when they brought the most coveted prize on the pond on board. Kovalchuk broght with him a Rocket Richard trophy and his Calder Trophy nomination, two 52 goal seasons and an average of more than 42 goals per year to Newark. The prevailing thought was that the Devils were loading up to battle the Pens, Caps and Flyers in the East.

But he scored just 10 more goals in the remaining 27 games for New Jersey. And the Devils were easily ousted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, even though Kovalchuk contributed six points in those five games.

Things take time, it would take a while for him to get used to a new system, develop chemistry with new teammates, right? The Devils were to be a significant force in the East.

Hey, wait a minute ... if the playoffs started today, the Devils would be out and Kovy's old team, the perpetually moribund Thrashers, would be in. They would be the last team in, but still, in the playoffs nonetheless, something that the Thrashers haven't visited since the '06-'07 season, the only time Kovalchuk visited the post-season during his tenure in Atlanta.

Currently, his plus/minus rating sits at minus 17. Minus 17. That's more than one negative point for every year of his contract. And his stink is spreading to the whole damned team. Of the active Devils roster, only four players have positive +/- ratings, three are right at zero and 22 players have negative +/- ratings.

By way of comparison, the Penguins have just six players in the negative and only two of those are regular starters (Evgeni Malkin and Zbynek Michalek.) Looks like a little more than half of the Devils players with stinky ratings play very regularly. The best +/- rating on the Devils plus 2 for former Senator Anton Volchenkov. Again, by way of comparison, Kris Letang is plus 15, Sid is plus 10 and Alex Gologoski is plus 10.

As a team, the Devils have scored more than two goals only seven times in their 27 games this season.
That's not industrial waste you're smelling along the New Jersey turnpike, that's the Devils.

I know all about Zach Parise's injury and and that without him, there's no net presence to scoop up any rebounds and make some dirty goals. But the rest of the team should be able to hold down the fort in Parise's absence, particularly a big ticket player like Kovalchuk; but rather than step up and drag the team with him, Kovalchuk seems to prefer just teetering along the blue line. In Monday night's game against the Pens, he looked like one of those dogs behind an invisible fence, so glued was he to the blue line.

Is Kovalchuck the hockey equivalent of Randy Moss?

Like Moss, he's clearly gifted. He has a wicked shot. He has amazing balance and flexibility. He's got great vision. He skates beautifully. And until his arrival in Newark, he put up big numbers year after year. On paper, he should make the Devils a better team.

But what has become clear is that Kovalchuk, despite his obvious gifts, cannot carry a team or, at the very least, lead a team. He's not the showboating, 'everybody have fun tonight' presence that Alex Ovechkin is or driven like Sid; he's not the personification of quiet competence and confidence like Nicklas Lidstrom, nor does he provide the fire to the Devils that Zach Parise does.

Given how much the Devils have tortured the Penguins over the years, I, for one, couldn't be happier about that.

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