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Ilya Kovalchuk's Zone Starts in the Last 3 Seasons: What John MacLean Should Do About Them

Sometimes, people look at a problem and see an opportunity.  I believe that New Jersey Devils head coach John MacLean has a big opportunity to help the re-signed Ilya Kovalchuk get off to a great start to his new contract.  To explain what I mean, we need to look back at the past few seasons of Kovalchuk.

From time to time this summer, Derek Zona has compiled a number of posts dealing with the "best forwards in the NHL." His main criteria is quality of competition since he believes that if you're facing tough competition regularly and you're coming out ahead in terms of goals for and goals against, then you're a top forward in the league.   Zona found Ilya Kovalchuk to be one of the 16 forwards who have met this criteria within the last 3 years.   He is the only Devil on that list, though he only played 27 games for New Jersey in that timespan.

Earlier in August, Zona returned to these 16 players to view how their Corsi rates would be adjusted in terms of zone starts, or where the player started their shift on the ice.  I've visited the topic of adjustment before; but that's not what stood out the most in that post.

In the last 3 seasons, Zona's table showed that Kovalchuk had a total of 944 offensive zone starts and 1010 defensive zone starts.  I am not making this up.  1,010 defensive zone starts.  From that list alone, that's more than checking center Samuel Pahlsson and Martin Hanzel.   More than the defensively responsible Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.  When you consider Ilya Kovalchuk's performance on his own, then his zone starts become more bewildering.  

It is from this, the opportunity for MacLean to utilize Kovalchuk in a way that better uses his strongest skills presents itself.

Let's take a step back, first.  Ilya Kovalchuk is a scoring machine. This much is true.  He's got 338 goals and 304 assists in 621 NHL games.  In his short time as a Devil last season, his shooting percentage plummeted to a more-human 9% and scored only 10 goals; but he still managed to put up a point-per-game average in 27 games.   Gabe Desjardins has shown recently that he is the second-most or the most talented shooter in the NHL today.  Earlier in the summer at the Behind the Net blog, Desjardins has this wonderful chart that shows that Kovalchuk accomplishes all of this without necessarily staying in one area in the offensive zone.  In other words, Kovalchuk will go where he wants to take his shots, a defense still can't just focus on one spot, and New Jersey will enjoy his shooting percentage returning closer to it's true mean.

(Note: All numbers here on out are from Behind the Net and for 5-on-5 play)

What is also true is that Kovalchuk is not a great defender.   By goals versus threshold, Kovalchuk wasn't awful, but he was nothing special either.  When I compared Kovalchuk to Zach Parise and Evgeni Malkin by the 5-on-5 on-ice numbers, several of his defensive stats (SA/60, GA/60) were near the bottom of the pool of forwards I used to rank the stats. It wasn't until this past season where the on-ice goals against per 60 for his team didn't balloon when Kovalchuk stepped on the ice (Kovalchuk kept it steady at 2.61, prior seasons were worse).  His effect on shots against per 60 varied in the last three years.  We can find all sorts of reasons justifying this: he played against tough competition, Atlanta may have gotten pounded elsewhere (e.g. defense, goaltending) and he suffered for it, etc.  Still, Kovalchuk was outscored at 5-on-5 hockey in 2007-08 (60 to 72), outscored in 2008-09 (68 to 71), and only last season did he come out ahead (70 to 52) amidst tough competition.   

I don't think any Devil fan should (or will) reasonably expect Kovalchuk to suddenly become a Selke Trophy finalist in 2010-11.  I would think most fans and observers of Kovalchuk will point out that he's not really a two-way even-strength beast or even a good defender.  He's a scorer, an offensive specialist, a finisher, a sniper, and so forth. So why has he been used as if he was some other kind of player?  Why did he so many starts in his own zone in the last three years?

Breaking down the zone start data from Behind the Net season by season makes it look worse.  In 2007-08, Kovalchuk had a total of 308 offensive zone starts and 319 defensive zone starts. For that season, Bob Hartley was fired 6 games into the season and Don Waddell stepped in as head coach for the rest of that season. Kovalchuk led the Atlanta forwards in offensive zone starts, which makes sense, and he ranked third in defensive zone starts among forwards behind Bobby Holik (549!) and Slava Kozlov (342).   John Anderson became the Thrashers head coach for 2008-09, and Kovalchuk's zone starts in Atlanta's end jumped.  In 08-09, Kovalchuk had 299 offensive zone starts, which led the team among forwards; and 365 defensive zone starts - only two behind the leading forward in that stat, Todd White.

Now, Behind the Net doesn't break down the a player's stats by team. So I can't tell you how Anderson placed him in 2009-10 and compare him to where Jacques Lemaire started him after the trade. What I can tell you is that Kovalchuk finished the season with 339 offensive zone starts and 330 defensive zone starts.  Finally, Kovalchuk came out slightly ahead.  Perhaps this contributed - slightly, perhaps - to Kovalchuk not getting outscored at 5-on-5.

Nevertheless, this gives me a total of 946 offensive zone starts and 1,014 defensive zone starts. I'm slightly off from Zona's total, but the point's the same: Kovalchuk had to start in the one end of the rink where it's tough for anyone to start more so than the one end where it's easier.  Kovalchuk started more times on defense than at his forte: offense.   I don't know about you, but that makes no sense to me at all.

I know I keep repeating that, but I am still mystified by this reality.  Fortunately, John MacLean can help Kovalchuk out.  John MacLean can fix this.

Give Ilya Kovalchuk softer minutes by giving Zach Parise the difficult ones.

Admittedly, I don't know whether John MacLean prefers matching "power" for "power" against opposition.  I don't know how much MacLean favors a possession game.  However, what I do know is that Zach Parise led the Devils forwards in offensive zone starts with 374 and third in defensive zone starts with 298 - and he did it with the second highest quality of competition on the team.  I do know that Parise is a far more complete forward at both ends of the rink than Kovalchuk.   Furthermore, Derek Zona even showed that Parise's most common linemates, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner, are on the longer list of highest quality of competition in the last two seasons - and they outscored the competition like Parise.

John MacLean has his "power" line already. This should not change now that Ilya Kovalchuk is definitively a Devil for the next 15 years. Instead, what Kovalchuk's been facing should change - and it should change for the better for all involved.  Keep in mind that Kovalchuk's offensive production and skills came against tough competition.   Kovalchuk may get fewer minutes at 5-on-5 in what I'm proposing, but his skills aren't going to go away if he faces weaker competition.   Kovalchuk is still going to create and command his own shot, just as he has in the past.   MacLean should make a point of it to put him on the ice for more offensive zone starts - or at least reduce his defensive zone starts. This way, Kovalchuk is in a better position to use his all-world skills right after the faceoff more often; and he's spending less time being forced to defend or get the puck up ice.

This isn't even theory.  Henrik and Daniel Sedin from last season are examples of what I want to see.  They didn't face tough competition all that often, their quality of competition was below zero.  Each Sedin had at least 100 more offensive zone starts than defensive starts (Henrik: 422 to 309; Daniel: 333 to 206). The only surprise was how incredibly productive they were - especially Henrik.  They worked quite hard and pounded opponents at 5-on-5 anyway.     It appears to me that Vancouver's Alain Vignaeult understood what his top two forwards could and could not do, put them in advantageous positions when possible, and reaped the rewards.  The Sedin twins may not put up as many points next season, but don't be surprised if they're still getting the job done in impressive fashion in the same manner.   That's what I want MacLean to do for Kovalchuk.

I understand that the Devils committed a lot of money to Kovalchuk and so there's the temptation and desire to make him the #1 guy on the ice in addition to the payroll.  I hope MacLean resists this temptation and utilizes Kovalchuk more to fit his skillset.  That means not throwing him on the ice for starts in front of Martin Brodeur 300 times.  That means not always matching him against the top competition like he has been for the last 3 seasons. That means realizing he already has players who can do what Kovalchuk has gone through, freeing him up to contribute elsewhere.

John MacLean has a chance to use an offensive star more offensively in 2010-11.  Let's hope he does that.  

Did these zone start numbers surprise you?  Can you explain why Atlanta kept throwing him in the defensive zone so much?  Perhaps you have a different idea on how to use Kovalchuk?  Maybe you disagree entirely? If so, then let us know your suggestion.  All the same, please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.