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Ilya Kovalchuk Contributed More on Defense than Evgeni Malkin - A Look at Kovalchuk's 2009-10 GVT

Ilya Kovalchuk is a fantastic sniper, a player who has put up 338 goals and 304 assists in 621 games.  Standing officially at 6'2" and 230 pounds, Kovalchuk will be one of the hottest names on the free agency market this summer.  The New Jersey Devils swung a deal in early February to pick up the erstwhile face of the Atlanta Thrasher franchise and ended up having a good, but not special time in New Jersey.   He led the Devils in playoff scoring, but given how the Devils got eliminated, not many are likely going to use his playoff performance as reason why he'll command big dollars this summer.

2009-10 - ATL - Ilya Kovalchuk 49 31 27 58 1 45 10 0 3 179 17.3
2009-10 - NJ - Ilya Kovalchuk 27 10 17 27 9 8 2 0 1 111 9.0
2009-10 - Playoffs - Ilya Kovalchuk 5 2 4 6 0 6 1 0 0 19 10.5

Shortly after the playoffs, I defended the deal.  It was a deal that had to be made.  Now Kovalchuk has the option to test the waters for himself.  He's in the prime of his career and he's really a special player even beyond the fact that he leads all active NHL players under 30 in goals.  Based on observation, it's noticeable that Kovalchuk's puck handling is amazing; he's probably the only Devil who can take on a defenseman and win a one-on-one more than just occasionally; and he can get a shot off from anywhere on the ice.

The advanced statistics interest me more, and not just because they remove confirmation and observation bias.  They can go into depth into how well Kovalchuk performed.  Maybe we'll learn something beyond the narrative around Kovalchuk.  Maybe it can provide a little suggestion into why Lou has begun talks with Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, about a contract before Paul Martin and his people were contacted, as per Tom Gulitti's article at (Thanks to ILWT reader Bill for the heads-up via e-mail.)   Maybe we'll find something about him that we won't particularly miss should he go elsewhere.

Yesterday, I explained why his PDO over the last three seasons impressed me.  That he maintained an on-ice shooting percentage of about 12% on 5-on-5 play is nothing short of remarkable.  No current Devil broke that threshold in either of the last three seasons, much less maintained it across multiple recent seasons.

Today, I looked up Ilya Kovalchuk's goals versus threshold (GVT) stats Behind the Net and want to share them with you.  The results and further opinion comes after the jump, including proof by GVT that Kovalchuk contributed more on defense than Evgeni Malkin as both an Atlanta Thrasher and as a New Jersey Devil.

What is GVT?

GVT stands for Goals Versus Threshold. Tom Awad of Puck Prospectus came up with the stat to objectively measure players against each other based on their contributions to goals.  It's similar to VORP and Awad explains the main benefits of GVT in this introductory article.  Similarly, he emphasizes that GVT works best for regular season performances and that it is a results-based stat.  It doesn't measure talent, intangibles, or chemistry; it measures contribution to goals and that's that.

(Aside #1: How it's calculated explains why I didn't use GVT for Paul Martin. Players who are injured and just don't play a lot of games suffers in this stat. Even if they have an amazing 22 games, their contribution will always be less than someone who was just good in 82 games.)

Essentially, for a skater, GVT is the sum of offensive GVT, defensive GVT, and shootout GVT.  A GVT of 0 is replacement level, as in an average NHL player would contribute more at that level.  A higher GVT value in either category is desirable for any player.

Kovalchuk's 2009-10 GVT by Team

Behind the Net not only stores this data, but actually breaks up players by team.   We can see Kovalchuk's GVT contributions as both a Thrasher and a Devil.

Atlanta 49 31 27 58 1 26.8 18 6.5 11.1 1.2 -0.2 12.1
New Jersey 27 10 17 27 9 15.1 12 7.9 3.6 2.2 -0.3 5.5

Note: OIT = offensive ice time, DIT = defensive ice time, RPM = relative plus/minus

Ilya Kovalchuk contributed more to the offense in Atlanta than he did in New Jersey.  While 27 points in 27 games was nothing to sneeze at, Kovalchuk was scoring at a fantastic rate in Atlanta.  Even the basic stats prior to the jump show this.  His total shooting percentage was very high (17.3% vs. 9.0%); he had a lot more offensive ice time in Atlanta than in New Jersey; and his high offensive GVT reflect that.  Based on how Awad calculates each individual GVT, goals are valued higher than assists.  That should be of no surprise, as it's goals versus threshold.  Kovalchuk's ridiculous .632 goals/game rate in Atlanta would lead to such a powerful offensive GVT rather than his .370 goals/game. 

Basically, I'm not surprised that his offensive GVT in Atlanta would be larger than it was in New Jersey.  What really strikes me is his defensive GVT. 

No, he's not the second coming of Travis Zajac or Jordan Staal, but his defensive GVT was above replacement level on both teams in this past season.  Even his defensive GVT from his Atlanta portion of 2009-10 was higher than teammate Maxim Afinogenov for the whole season (0.0) and Pittsburgh star center Evgeni Malkin (1.1). 

If nothing else, this is a stat that proves Kovalchuk has, in fact, contributed something defensively.  Perhaps not as much as you'd like, but he's not the defensive liability as some claim.  Feel free to laugh when someone brings that up in a discussion about what Kovalchuk can do.

Looking at both team's contributions show that he contributed more in New Jersey than he did in Atlanta.  Is this the effect of playing fewer games, with less of a chance for errors to add up? Perhaps playing for Jacques Lemaire and his coaching staff taught him a few things on how to manage his area in his own zone?  Maybe Kovalchuk wanted to make a good impression and put out more of an effort on defense?

Whatever reason you choose to support, teams should see Kovalchuk as an offensive force, but not necessarily a waste defensively either.

Curiously, his contribution on the shootout is below replacement level.   Not something you'd expect from a player who rolls out 35+ goal seasons like it was no big deal.   Shootout GVT is a bit odd because you see Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar, and Pavel Datsyuk among the largest contributors, but exploring a bit finds both Sedin twins at replacement level and scorers like Henrik Zetterberg, Vincent Lecavalier, and Brad Richards among the worst contributors.

I'm taking it to mean that if I need a player for a shootout, Kovalchuk may not be among initial choices.  However, it's a bit strange to me to find talented forwards all over the place in this stat.

Kovalchuk's GVT Across Both Teams

Well, it's great to see Kovalchuk's contributions by team. However, Kovalchuk's whole season included both. Trying to compare them separately to the rest of the league doesn't say a whole lot. A GM isn't going to just look at each performance separately, they're going to look at his season as a whole.   A team's management isn't going to look at this and determine that Kovalchuk's total GVT was as much as Rene Bourque and Chris Stewart when he was in Atlanta; but only was as much as Brad Boyes and Vernon Fiddler in New Jersey. 

Let's assume that these stats can be added.  I honestly don't know if this makes actual sense, but I'm going ahead with it anyway.  Given how so many of the top scorers have a total offensive ice time above 40, I highly doubt Kovalchuk made the absolute most of his time.  As a top scorer himself, he probably is up there in that stat and the only way Kovalchuk could reach that is if we add both team contributions together.

49 31 27 58 1 26.8 18 6.5 11.1 1.2 -0.2 12.1
New Jersey 27 10 17 27 9 15.1 12 7.9 3.6 2.2 -0.3 5.5
2009-10 Total 76 41 44 85 10 41.9
14.7 3.4 -0.5 17.6


Assuming the GVT makes sense added up, this puts Kovalchuk up among similar scorers from this past season. His combined offensive GVT puts him ahead of Joe Thornton (14.4) and Zach Parise (14.2), but behind Dany Heatley (15.0).  Only 11 other skaters - 10 forwards and Mike Green - finished ahead of Kovalchuk in terms of offensive contributions to their team. That forward group includes Alex Ovechkin, Crosby, Daniel Sedin, and Henrik Sedin among other names you should recognize.    This further proves that Ilya Kovalchuk was contributing as much as the best in the league to goals across both teams.  In Atlanta more so than New Jersey, granted, but his time in New Jersey didn't pull him down.

His total defensive GVT puts him higher up the league, further proving that Kovalchuk was not a total liability on defense in 09-10.  In fact, he contributed to his teams defense as much as Jeff Carter, Dustin Penner, the recently signed Nicklas Backstrom, Kyle Brodziak, Martin Hanzal, and defenseman Jack Johnson.   No, I wouldn't think of putting Kovalchuk out on a penalty kill or to check the other team.  However, it makes those times we saw Kovalchuk out there at the end of the game with the opposition having pulled their goalie a little more sensible.   He's not awful on defense.  Again, feel free to laugh at those who claim he can't defend because the defensive GVT says otherwise.

His shootout GVT is even worse combined; but as stated earlier, I throw up my hands at how much it really says about a player beyond whether they should be a go-to player on the shootout.  Kovalchuk being below replacement level says no. 

The last value, his total goals versus threshold value of 17.4 is quite good.  Whether it's elite is up to your opinion. 17.4 would put him 31st among all NHL players last season; however, it was the 15th highest among all NHL forwards from last season.  Kovalchuk's total GVT would rank third among all Devils players behind team leader Zach Parise (21.3) and Martin Brodeur (20.5).  On the other hand, his total GVT put him in between Pavel Datsyuk (17.7) and Jonathan Toews (17.1), two of the more talented players in the NHL today.   Again, I leave it to you to make your own opinion as to whether Kovalchuk's 2009-10 contributions was exceptional or just very good.  


Basically, Kovalchuk's contributions to the Atlanta Thrashers were higher than the New Jersey Devils for a number of reasons.  He was shooting at a very high percentage, and so his offensive GVT was sparked largely by the sheer amount of goals he scored.   It also helped that he played more games with Atlanta.   However, in New Jersey, his defensive contributions improved whilst his lower shooting percentage plus lower number of games cut into his offensive GVT by a large amount.   Only in shootouts did Kovalchuk perform below replacement level.

In total, Kovalchuk ranks quite well in offensive and total GVT among other NHL forwards.  His defensive GVT total matched those who do not necessarily have a reputation for being poor defenders, suggesting that the notion that Kovalchuk can't defend as simply not being true in the 2009-10 season.   Again, the only shortfall was in shootouts and all that really says is that Kovalchuk didn't perform well at them - it doesn't say much about he played in actual game itself.

Ultimately, all this points to how Kovalchuk contributed, it's not the only stat to measure how well a player did. But it does confirm that Kovalchuk is a player who contributes much on offense and suggests that he will contribute to whoever he plays for across a full season - be it as a New Jersey Devil or someone else.   In fact, I think it's because he's been such an important contributor that the Devils are talking to Kovalchuk and his agent before Martin.  They'd could do it just to see see what range Kovalchuk and his agent are interested in and use that as a template going forward for their other deals.

Big thanks to Behind the Net for calculating and storing these numbers, as well as Tom Awad for coming up with the GVT statistic.  Incidentally, Awad put together an all-time GVT list in a giant Excel spreadsheet that may be of your interest up at the Behind the Net blog.  Learn where Kovalchuk ranks all-time as well as other players (guess where Martin Brodeur is).  Clarification note about the spreadsheet: By the way, the all-time GVT is normalized to account for goals/game and total games across different eras so the numbers there are going to be a different from the non-normalized Behind the Net, which is OK because the numbers at Behind the Net are isolated for just 2009-10.  Also, the all-time list includes a Help factor which accounts for their teammates be they good (positive) or bad (negative).  Thanks to Tom Awad for clearing that up for me.

Let me know what you think.  Did Kovalchuk's defensive GVT surprise you?  That he was better than Evgeni Malkin, among others, in contributions to defense?  Does Kovalchuk offensive or total GVT impress you, or just confirm what you thought about him?  Does it change what you think about Kovalchuk going forward?   Please leave your thoughts in the comments.  (But do note that I made no opinion on whether he should be re-signed or how much he's worth or anything of that ilk.  Just that Kovalchuk was a big contributor in his whole 2009-10.)