Goal-scoring isn't Ilya Kovalchuk's problem. Count 'em: 406 goals in 779 NHL regular-season games. That's what earned him a 15-year, $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils.
It certainly wasn't his defense.
A career minus player, mostly with the former Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk was justly criticized for being one-dimensional. When coach Peter DeBoer took over before this season, that changed.
"I think just more of a commitment, you know, an understanding that you have to play a 200-foot game at this time of the year in order to win," DeBoer said. "Everybody's doing it. The good teams that survive this long don't get here unless everyone's committed to doing that."
DeBoer conceded that Kovalchuk still has work to do but is transforming into a more well-rounded player at both ends of the rink. His game has developed to the point that it could serve as a blueprint for fellow Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin. But the genesis of Kovalchuk's improvement was somewhat unconventional: penalty killing.
"I think the biggest difference this year is that I play a little PK. It's really helped me to be better in my own zone and to be in the right position," Kovalchuk said. "To give me a fit with the guys in the defensive zone, it's important. I think that it has helped me a lot and changed my game a little bit."
There's inherent risk in putting a $100 million offensive threat in situations where he could be blocking 100 mph slap shots, but the Devils found out on the way to the Stanley Cup Final that there are benefits. Kovalchuk popped three short-handed goals this season, but the biggest team-wide gain was his becoming more positionally sound.
According to DeBoer, making Kovalchuk a better two-way player was not the motive of putting him on the penalty kill.
"Early in the season,, we just felt that he was playing well. We wanted to give him that opportunity in that situation," New Jersey's coach said. "One of the side effects of that was I think it helped his defensive game, and so did he. That wasn't the reason to do it, but it was a nice side effect."
Kovalchuk saw a predictable uptick in ice time to a career high of 24:26 a game as a result of penalty killing and plenty of action on the power play. It's a major reason why he scored 83 points this season after managing just 60 in 2010-11 — his fewest since scoring 51 his rookie season of 2001-02. He's also tied with the Kings' Anze Kopitar for the scoring lead in the playoffs with 18 points yet L.A. has held Kovalchuk without a point through the first three games.
Mentality, fostered by his role on the penalty kill, also helped.
"He doesn't try to win hockey games by himself. I think that's biggest difference for him to adjust to. You look at players from Russia, that's the way they're brought up; they have so much skills and since they were young, if they have skills, they have to show it," forward Patrik Elias said. "Once he joined us, that's his different mentality. He's done a great job for us. He adjusted his game tremendously compared to last year. He's working a lot harder in the right places."
Put in a similar spot as Kovalchuk, though as a veteran, Dainius Zubrus led New Jersey forwards in short-handed time on ice while putting up 44 points. It marked his best offensive season since scoring 60 points in 2006-07 with Washington and Buffalo.
"It feels like I'm way more involved in the games than the first couple years when I was here," Zubrus said. "That kind of keeps you in the groove and keeps you in the game that much better."
In a similar vein, Alexander Semin's agent, Mark Gandler, said that his client wants to be on the penalty kill and that "he has so much to give to whatever team wants to give him a full-time player role."
Skating in all situations isn't the solution for every player, and leaving open more chances for injury shouldn't be discounted as a drawback. But the Devils wouldn't have made the Cup Final without a well-rounded Kovalchuk, who credits penalty-killing time for making him concentrate more on defense five on five.
"He's gotten better defensively. He's arguably one of the best players on the team, so why wouldn't you have him on the PK? He's a big guy that can skate, and he's smart," forward Eric Boulton said. "Why wouldn't you have your best player on the PK? I think that's just got him a little bit more ice time. But he's bought in to the team and the defense and what it takes to win."
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