The headline is pretty straight forward. Ilya Kovalchuk will carry a heavy load for the New Jersey Devils in the upcoming 2013 season. Before getting into what would otherwise be a brief point, I'd want to emphasize that Kovalchuk will play for the New Jersey Devils in 2013. Yesterday, there were all kinds of articles by Tom Gulitti, Rich Chere, ESPN, TSN, Puck Daddy, and ProHockeyTalk among others questioning Kovalchuk's return based on sources, rumors, and Kovalchuk not saying "I'm totally coming back" when asked. Rather, the headlines were setting the question while the article - like all of the linked ones in that previous sentence - that pointed the facts that would seemingly prevent Kovalchuk to stay with SKA St. Petersburg. If you read them, then you already know this and understand there isn't any cause for concern. For those who just read the headlines and freaked out, then follow this aside that will segue back to the main point.
Staying with his KHL club may not even be an actual option as his KHL club. The KHL contracts signed by NHL players all have escape clauses, requiring them to return to their NHL teams when the lockout ends as part of their transfer agreement. I highly doubt the NHL or the KHL are going to blow up their agreement over that, regardless of what SKA wants or what Dmitry Medvedev says. The IIHF certainly would have to get involved for any violations of the transfer agreement and they could conceivably punish violators through bans of international play. I highly doubt Kovalchuk, who regularly represents his nation in international play when he can, would want to take that risk.
Moreover and perhaps more importantly, Kovalchuk's contract would be void should KHL not honor their agreement, meaning he would lose over the $86 million left in his guaranteed deal with New Jersey. Again, that point alone should've led to the ignoring of the rumor. On top of that, he'd also become persona non-grata here in North American hockey, much less New Jersey. He would burn a massive bridge in hockey along with setting tons of money on fire to stay. Believing he wouldn't return would mean believing that he's that willing to cut off his nose to spite an incredibly rich face to play for a team he had two chances to sign with but ultimately did not. If, for some reason, we are to believe that Kovalchuk is that stupid, then I'm sure someone else like his agent or his family will help him understand.
What the "sources" and worriers seem to not grasp is that the lockout is still on going. As much as it looks like it's a safe bet that the CBA will be ratified and we will have a hockey season, it's technically a lockout. Teams can't communicate with players and contracts like the one Kovalchuk has with SKA are still ongoing. He's honoring his deal until his NHL deal kicks back in after ratification. Then and only then does he have to return; whether he says he's in "no hurry" is irrelevant. As much as we may be concerned about a potential injury, his situation is no different from what it was a week ago. He's signed with SKA, he's still locked out, and he can play, so he is. Would it have been nice if he wasn't so evasive in his comments about returning? Sure. I leave it to you decide if you want to get mad about it, but in a week or so, it's not going to matter unless you care about sentiment and words over actions. The CBA will be ratified, his grandfathered contract will then take control, Kovalchuk will then come back to New Jersey, and he will be carrying a heavy load when the 2013 season begins.
It's that last part that I intend to justify. I think it's rather obvious as to why Kovalchuk will be leaned on based on last season. As I noted in my season preview for the forwards, he played a ton of minutes, he led the Devils in goals, points, and shots, and he's the only Devil on the roster who can score at a 30+ goal/game rate and fire more than 300 shots in a full season. What isn't so obvious is that he's been relied on to play a lot of the team's minutes right from when he was acquired. Sure, his average time on ice is high but that alone didn't put it fully in perspective, at least not for me.
Over at NHL Numbers about a month ago, Ben Wendorf hit on an interesting concept called Time On-Ice%, or TOI%. It's a simple calculation of a player's time on ice over the total time played by the team: time on ice plus time off ice. While average ice time is a good rule of thumb for a player's usage, TOI% really gets into how much of a player was used by their team. In a more recent post, Wendorf noted that Kovalchuk has been one of the most heavily used forwards in the entire league in recent seasons. I asked Wendorf if he had calculated the numbers for all the Devils and he did, thanks to Behind the Net storing TOI/60 for all players. After sifting through it and ranking each player, I attained a better perspective. I discovered that Kovalchuk was leaned on right from the get-go.
The ranks are out of all players who suited up for New Jersey and the highlighted boxes indicate Kovalchuk led all Devils forwards. Just by roster spots alone, defensemen usually lead in TOI% because there's more time to be split up among a smaller group of players. For the most part, this was true for the Devils in the last three seasons with one exception: Kovalchuk. He ranked among the most heavily used players on the team at 5-on-5, 5-on-4, and all situations. The only situation he wasn't used all that much was in 4-on-5 play and that saw a huge increase last season.
It really surprised me that Kovalchuk was on the ice for such a large percentage of the time right when he was acquired in 2009-10. Now, the 2009-10 numbers does include his time with Atlanta where he was pretty much the main man and utilized as such. If his usage fell with the Devils under Jacques Lemaire, it really didn't hurt him all that much and he still finished well ahead of the forwards. Despite dealing with two coaches in a lost season in 2010-11, Kovalchuk's usage increased. He played a larger percentage at 5-on-5, still led the way on the power play, and his usage rate in all situations fell just behind Henrik Tallinder among all players. That's way more than Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, the time Zach Parise played before his injury, and the rest of the regular defensemen. That both MacLean and Lemaire figured on using Kovalchuk a lot speaks plenty about what Kovalchuk brings to a team.
If you thought you saw a lot of #17 in those two seasons, then Peter DeBoer took it to another level last season. It was common to see him double-shifted in the third period, but that wasn't new for him. His TOI% at 5-on-5 actually didn't increase that much. Perhaps he was double-shifted in 2010-11? Perhaps it didn't lead to that much of an increase in ice time at 5-on-5? Whatever the case may be, he still lead the forwards by 4.1%, a big gap over Parise. While he didn't face the toughs - Elias' line did - being put on the ice just under 36% of the time at 5-on-5 is a feat in of itself. The increase in his total TOI% was driven by special teams. Kovalchuk led the way on the power play, but his rate shot up to a ridiculous 94.2%. Last season set the standard on what it means to rely on one player on a unit as Kovalchuk regularly played entire power plays. I leave it to you to decide The real boost - and the surprise - was his use on the penalty kill. While he wasn't a top PK player, he was used regularly. It suggests he's got a defensive game. Whether or not he was effective is another discussion but I doubt coaches kept putting him out there if he wasn't. While he didn't become one of the most used players in 4-on-5 situations, going up from rarely out there to sometimes out there means he was on the ice more often. As a result, Kovalchuk led the entire team in TOI% and by quite a bit (4.7% over Parise to be exact).
When considering his numbers in conjunction with how he's used, it's even clearer that Kovalchuk is crucial to the New Jersey Devils. Anyone who plays roughly 40% of the entire team's ice time is critical to the team's success. Kovalchuk does that while being a somewhat positive possession player, generating a lot of shots, making lots of plays, and earning a lot of points. Nobody can honestly say with a straight face he's not putting in a full effort and providing results. The fact he was used so much may cause some legitimate concern down the road in his career.
Yet, I doubt this will change much in 2013. Bringing Kovalchuk down from nearly 40% of all ice time would require other players to take minutes. With the departure of Parise and the lack of depth at forward, I struggle to name who could take minutes and perform just as well as or better than Kovalchuk. That last point cannot be emphasized enough. DeBoer relied on Kovalchuk a lot last season in terms of minutes and Kovalchuk produced a lot results. I do not think he'll change that approach unless he really has to. Only two things come to mind that would lead to Kovalchuk being played significantly less often in 2013: injury or poor performance. If either happens, especially if it's injury, then the team's got bigger problems than Kovalchuk's usage rate. If he stays healthy and continues to produce, then it's no problem for now. He's done a significant amount of work for the Devils before, so I think it's reasonable to think he can and will do it again. In line with my preview on the Devils' forwards, I just hope it'll be enough. We shall see when he definitely returns to the team later this month.
Thanks again to Ben Wendorf for providing the TOI% numbers, thanks go to Behind the Net for continuing to provide the numbers to allow us to look deeper into players, and thank you for reading.