Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ilya Kovalchuk's Retirement and Its Effect On The Devils

Twitter is an endlessly clucking echo chamber where good sense is discarded in favor of snark, so I figured I'd throw up something here about Ilya Kovalchuk's sudden retirement.  I don't really know where to begin (even though I was planning on writing an article like this anyway), so let's start with his performance:

Last season was a struggle for Ilya both at even strength and 5 on 4 - He scored 7 goals in 37 games in those situations.  Indeed, his Corsi ON was particularly awful, barely positive despite cherry zone starts and weak competition.  His On-Ice shooting percentage, once the engine which drove his performance, had also cratered as a Devil - it's hard to see where the superstar player was 5 on 5 as a New Jersey Devil if we look at his rates.  He was 134th out of 360 forwards in goals scored per 60 minutes 5 on 5 since signing his new contract after having been 3rd in that mark the previous 3 years.  Particularly galling was his on-ice shot rate - it stayed flat, and his shooting percentage had died too.  The Devils actually generated more shots while Kovalchuk was off the ice than on, not exactly a great endorsement for a player who is supposed to bring tons of offense.

However, he was a dominant short-handed player in the times he was put there, leading the league in Goals/60 by a wide margin over his 160 minutes played 4 on 5 over the last 3 seasons.

Kovalchuk also led the league in power play ice time - predictably, his power play scoring rates were not high.  Kovalchuk ranked 135th out of 173 qualified forwards players in Goals/60 at 5 on 4.  Granted, he did play the point and many of these players did not, but he had also led the league in power play goals from that spot back in 2005-06.  And indeed, he was only 86th in this mark out of 211 players between 2007-08 and 2009-10.   His power play efficacy, like anyone else's, is quite difficult to ascertain, but I imagine he is above average at this.  How many wins a year that's worth is anyone's guess.

The question is, can the Devils sign someone on the free agent market or acquire someone cheaply in trade who matches these kinds of numbers?  The answer seems to be no, of course not.  However, with payments due to Kovalchuk equal to $11.2M per season over the next 5 years, I find it hard to believe the Devils can't do better than this in free agency or via a salary dump.  They will be affected in 2013-14, but Kovalchuk's talent for shooting well above average had disappeared as a Devil, whether by a focus on defense, a move to right wing, chance, or some other reason, and so too had any reason to think he is an exceptional player.  An above-average one, sure, but exceptional?  No.  I see no reason to think that the Devils aren't a playoff team next year without Kovalchuk, provided they do at least get one player to replace some of his ice time.