When Ilya Kovalchuk “retired” from the NHL to return to Russia, he left the New Jersey Devils in a very difficult, next to impossible position. The majority of the top-tier free agents had already moved on to new teams at that point. The Devils front office had to scramble to find several players to attempt to fill the void that his departure created.
Now that we are nine games into the 2013-14 season, I thought I would evaluate the team based on the loss of Kovalchuk, and determine in what ways they have overcompensated for his loss as well as what areas still are negatively impacted by his departure.
The Devils power play has been anemic this season (4-30 / 13%) and a big component of that is the loss of Kovalchuk, who was their best special teams player (www.nhl.com). The new power play unit just lacks punch, and has to hold the zone better to maximize scoring with the man advantage.
The new power play unit of Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, and Michael Ryder lacks chemistry, which I hope will develop over time as the season progresses. New Jersey Head Coach Peter DeBoer has also used Jaromir Jagr and Dainius Zubrus on the power play as well this season. I like what both of those players could potentially bring to the unit, but Jagr passes too much at times in that role when he should shoot the puck.
Zubrus brings a tough shot, some speed, and some grittiness to the power play unit which I think the first unit, the core unit, lacks. Kovalchuk was so valuable because he would skate the entire two minute power play and provide outstanding skating, great puck handling, and his elite offensive skills to the man advantage. He cannot be replaced, but the Devils have to do a much better job trying to fill that void on special teams.
I read a report earlier that Eric Gelinas, who was called up from Albany to fill the spot left by Bryce Salvador (death in the family), will be on the power play unit tonight against the Vancouver Canucks (www.nhl.com). I applaud Mr. DeBoer for making that change and allowing the young prospect, Gelinas, and his powerful shot to man the point on the power play. I have written previously about the importance of changing the points on the power play unit to shake up the productivity on special teams.
Penalty Kill Unit
The loss of Ilya Kovalchuk to the penalty kill unit has not been as dramatic as I thought it would be to this point in the new season. Now, Kovalchuk provided tremendous value on the penalty killing unit, so that cannot be understated, particularly because the opposition had to account for his capability of scoring shorthanded when he got the puck.
Kovalchuk had 4 shorthanded goals in the condensed 2013 season, often at very critical points in a game (www.nhl.com). The Devils overall had 11 shorthanded goals in the 2013 season, which was excellent (www.nhl.com). I thought the Devils would really miss the skating ability of Kovalchuk to cover the large amounts of ice exposed on a penalty kill scenario.
However, that has not been the case, give the Devils credit for their penalty killing this season has been a bright spot: they have been on the kill 25 times and allowed only 4 goals which is an 84% clip that is 7th best in the NHL (www.nhl.com). The Devils have one shorthanded goal this season, but they need Adam Henrique to step up and provide that role to this new group. He has the potential to score shorthanded goals, we have seen him do it in the past, and he needs to step up his overall game.
The qualities that a premier talent like Kovalchuk brought to the Devils cannot be replaced. He provided elite level offensive skill, was a threat to score each time with the puck, and provided a huge lift to the rest of the team through his high volume of ice time. Kovalchuk led the Devils in total ice time in 2013 at over 24 minutes of ice time per game (www.nhl.com). The only player close was Andy Greene at 23 minutes per game.
The Devils are a changed team from the previous editions we have seen, we all know that, to offset the ice time that Kovalchuk provided, they are now a team that has to roll 4 good lines out a night. The issues this season I think are not with the talent on this team, because they do have talent on this roster. The issue is with the coaching.
Coach DeBoer has made too many changes to the lines, to the point where I think it cannot be good for chemistry and has caused breakdowns in the system. Those breakdowns have caused the losses we have seen here in the early stages of this season. He has got to stick with a line for more than a game or two, it seems like such a knee-jerk reaction from an experienced coach.
The bright spots are there for the Devils to build upon though: the play of Damien Brunner, the energy from Andrei Loktionov, the 4 goals from Michael Ryder, and the play of the “CBGB” line of Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, and Stephen Gionta.
One final note, the Devils are like a tale of two different teams when I looked at their home/road splits: 2 games at Home – 7 goals scored and 3 goals allowed. In the 7 games on the road – 11 goals scored and 25 goals allowed (www.nhl.com).
Those numbers have to change on the road for the Devils to be a competitive team this season. It is possible, and it will not be easy, but in the end I believe that this roster is capable of putting some wins together. I think it is better to have a total team effort where you have to rely on each player filling their role, than to rely on a team that is laden with star players.
In the end, I think that this team will grow together and each player will make contributions which is much better than being reliant upon one player too much like we had with Kovalchuk. I think history will judge that his decision will ultimately be for the best because it will allow the Devils to move forward and play as a true team.