To call Ilya Kovalchuk‘s start to this season unexpected would be an understatement.
The talented Russian left-winger, who scored 338 goals over eight seasons, lost his scoring touch. Kovalchuk currently has four – yes, four – goals on the season. He hasn’t been the explosive force the Devils expected when they inked him to a monster 15-year, $100 million dollar contract. Kovalchuk seems to be stuck in neutral, and his decision process suffers because of this. The left-winger passes up too many opportunities, opting to dish the puck to Travis Zajac or Alexander Vasyunov when he should put the puck on net. When he charges into the offensive zone and three defenders collapse around him, Kovalchuk holds on to the puck instead of passing it. He’s pressing, hoping to get other teammates involved while finding his own game.
But all hope isn’t lost. Kovalchuk can fix his problem with one simple, easy solution:
SHOOT THE DAMN PUCK!
Through 17 games, Kovalchuk put 47 shots on net, good for 2.8 shots per game. In the past three games, Kovalchuk put six total shots on net. A player who scored 50+ goals twice in his career should not average two shots a game. Hockey players are creature of habit, and each individual needs to find their rhythm. Three shots a game will never allow Kovalchuk to find a rhythm on the ice. He needs to up that number and average four of five shots a game. If Kovalchuk continued on this pace, he’d put 229 shots on net, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2001-02.
Defenses will continue to collapse toward Kovalchuk, and putting shots on net won’t come easily to the left-winger. But the only way to break his scoring funk is to shoot the puck. Kovalchuk can’t score goals if he doesn’t put the pucks on net, and he’s not going to score putting a measly 2.8 shots on net. He’d have to convert almost 33% of his opportunities in a game just for one goal. A shooting percentage that good is unheard of in the NHL, and while Kovalchuk has exceptional talent, no scorer is that good.
In Atlanta, Kovalchuk had free reign of the ice, with the team running their offense through him. But in New Jersey, where other talented players surround him, there are options on every line. Kovalchuk needs to find that happy balance between getting teammates involved and being selfish with the puck. One place he should look to is Washington, where Alexander Ovechkin has found a near perfect balance of scoring and facilitating. Ovie has yet to record a season where he puts less than 400 shots on net, an astronomical number. But despite the heavy shot total, Ovechkin finds ways to involve his teammates. As a matter of fact, Ovechkin has 279 career goals and 275 career assists. Though he’s an exceptional talent, Ovechkin has found ways to bring teammates into the fold while still taking care of his end of the offense.
With Zach Parise out, Kovalchuk is this team’s best scoring option. He needs to embrace this role and step up to its challenges. I wouldn’t mind seeing Kovalchuk be a little more selfish with the puck. The Devils signed the left-winger for his 50-goal potential. Kovalchuk won’t even sniff that plateau if he doesn’t shoot the puck.
To break his slump, Kovalchuk simply needs to shoot the damn puck. Increase the shots, and hopefully the rest falls into place.