Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Has Ilya Kovalchuk Changed For The Better?

It's a thing that gets repeated in the media all the time - Ilya Kovalchuk's making a Commitment to Defense. He Wants To Win and is now Listening To The Coaches. See here as Bobby Holik holds him up as a paragon for Alex Ovechkin to emulate. See here as Pierre Lebrun calls him a Hart Trophy candidate. One thing that's not getting talked about is how Kovalchuk's shooting percentage has gone to seed as a New Jersey Devil. Kovalchuk, as of March 8th, is shooting 11.1% as a Devil, scoring on exactly 1 out of every 9 shots. As an Atlanta Thrasher, he shot 14.95% - the difference may not sound like much, but that's scoring on more than one out of every 7 shots. For a player who shoots upwards of 3.5 times a game, it's a significant difference - assuming Kovalchuk's career shot rate and an 80 game season, it's a difference of 11 goals a year. That's going to be difficult to make up in other ways - the question is, can we account for this difference?

First, we must point out that shooting percentage for everyone should be down - league-wide goaltending has gotten slightly better over the course of Kovalchuk's career. According to, the average save percentage was .908 in Kovalchuk's first season, it is now .914. In addition, there were many more power plays league-wide early in Kovalchuk's career - power plays are at a 30 year low again this season. Kovalchuk had 27 power play goals in 2005-06, the leader this year is not even on pace for 20. So we should expect some sort of drop in total shooting percentage, but his percentages have dropped both at even strength and at 5 on 4.

Here's Kovalchuk's shooting percentages since 2007-08, split into 5v5 and 5v4 (EN goals not removed, source

YearGoals5v5Shots5v5S%Goals 5v4Shots 5v4S%

We don't have enough information to say that's a trend, but it doesn't look good. Still, a smart fan who's good at the eye test will tell me this: 'Sure, Kovalchuk's shooting percentage is down at even strength - it's because he's not cheating for breakaways like he used to. He's gotten better defensively.' And sure enough, an examination of save percentages yield some hope. I compared Kovalchuk's save percentage while on the ice 5 on 5 to when he was off (source:

Again, it's difficult to ascribe this to anything besides randomness, but at the very least, what appears to have been a trend is reversing. It's difficult to tell though, as Kovalchuk's teams have largely gotten below-average goaltending. However, at least this season, it's difficult to ascribe that to him or players playing like him on his line.

Here's a look at Goals For per 60 minutes at even strength and Goals Against per 60 minutes (source:


Again, what seems to have been a high goal player on both ends has become a player much closer to the NHL average in terms of goals for and against. So let's go to the real stats, the Corsi and so forth (source: and

YearCorsi RelCorsi ONZone StartES +/-
The Corsi Rel is slightly improving but it's difficult to say that's that great given the zone starts - New Jersey is slightly above 50% in total zone starts. Plus, Kovalchuk plays with Zach Parise, one of the game's best play drivers before this year. It's hard to find much of an indication here that Kovalchuk is becoming a substantially better player - we can't know for sure if his defense was responsible for his goalie's decreased save percentage, nor can we necessarily call his upswing in that department this year a 'trend', as last year he was substantially below par.
The one place where we can say for sure that Kovalchuk has 'improved' is a place where he's rarely played - the penalty kill. While Kovalchuk is getting better zone starts than just about anyone on the PK, his Corsi Rel ranks 2nd in the league among PKers with more than 1 minute per game of short-handed ice time, and he has 3 short handed goals and 2 assists. Kovalchuk has been on the ice for 5 goals for and 2 goals against while shorthanded 4 on 5, a remarkable feat in 70 minutes of PK time. As far as I can remember, New Jersey has not been shorthanded at the end of a game in which they trailed by 1 or 2, which might warp the Corsi results, as the Devils would try to pull their goalie and attempt lots of shots on the opposition's net. Kovalchuk has been a top penalty killer, and that's certainly a skill most wouldn't've thought he was capable of before this season.
In summary, while Kovalchuk's shooting percentage numbers have declined, his Corsi Rel has slightly improved. We also can't forget that Kovalchuk has moved to right wing for most of this season - perhaps that's part of why his shooting percentage has declined. Still, even though Kovalchuk has earned many plaudits for this season, Devils fans have to be concerned that the guy they got is not entirely the guy they paid for, and it remains to be seen whether that will turn out to be a positive development.

1 comment:

  1. Devils fan here. Though I'd love to see him put back on the left side (he scores off the rush there, he doesn't from the right), we're pretty happy.