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Calling Out Ilya Kovalchuk

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If you want people to treat you like a superstar, you have to play like a superstar.

The true superstars of the game lead their teams in scoring, make good plays on the defensive side of the puck, are locker room leaders and handle a large share of the media load in their hometowns and on the road. As a consequence of doing these things, superstars get paid like superstars. The elite of the NHL start with players like Alexander Ovechkin, Nick Lidstrom, Sidney Crosby--they carry the load for their clubs.

So far this season, Ilya Kovalchuk does not fit the superstar label. He is not putting up the big points, he is not scoring the goals -- heck, he's not even bothering to take the shots that would produce the points.

Ilya Kovalchuk is playing his usual so-so defense (which is an improvement from the execrable defense of his early years). He does VERY little in the way of promoting the Atlanta Thrashers franchise compared to superstars like Ovechkin, Crosby or Lidstrom. I'm tuned in and I rarely hear him talk on the radio, television or in print. When's the last time he spoke on NHL Live? His best interviews appear in the Russia press--which is read by people who seldom buy Thrasher tickets. We only learn what he is really thinking when a blogger like PuckDaddy posts a translation.

Ilya Kovalchuk has the talent to be a superstar. He has the speed, he still has that ungodly release. He will certainly expect to be paid like a superstar when he negotiates his next contract. But if he wants to be treated like a superstar, he should play like one.

It is time for him to show up. The season started 19 games ago. I don't want to hear any baloney about Kovalchuk not having quality linemates. Last season, Kovalchuk was centered much of the year by Todd White (who has never even been considered All-Star Game material), and a 40-year-old right winger who was dropped to waivers by his previous club (Mark Recchi). Despite these pedestrian linemates, Kovalchuk single-handedly carried the Atlanta offense at times even as other lines and other players (Marian Hossa) and the entire defensive corps disappointed fans. When Ilya Kovalchuk feels like driving to the net and shooting, he will score regardless of who is on his line.

So how about it, Kovalchuk? So far this season, the goaltending has kept the Thrashers in every every game on the schedule. This is a team that desperately needs your offensive skills. If you shot the puck like you did last year, this team probably would be sitting on the edge of the playoffs. The 2nd line of Kozlov-White-Little has really carried the scoring load at even strength (see table below). The Kovalchuk line has been a terrific let down so far, barely outscoring the 3rd line and just slightly ahead of the 4th line.

ES Goals by Line
7 = Kovalchuk 4-Williams 2-Christensen 1
18= Kozlov 8-White 8-Little 2
6 = Thorburn 0-Reasoner 4-Armstrong 2
4 = Boulton 0-Slater 2-Perrin 1

The most bothersome aspect of Kovalchuk's play is he unwillingness to shoot the puck when he has possession of it in the offensive zone (see table below). He keeps trying to be Sidney Crosby and set other people up. You're Ilya Kovalchuk, goalies have nightmares about your shot! Stop passing and let it rip!!!

Kovalchuk Shots per Game by Season
05-06 4.14
06-07 4.10
07-08 3.58
08-09 2.68

Will Kovalchuk get on board? Does he want to be included when people list the NHL's truly great players? If so, he needs to bring that shot of his every night. He needs to play with passion and he needs to be the kind of player we've seen him be before. If he doesn't want to be here, he should tell management that. If he only wants to play hard part of the time or if he only plays defense when the coach gets after him or if he ducks out on the media, well then he should only expect to be paid like a one-way scorer in his next contract -- because the elite players bring all that to the table. That's what separates the stars from the superstars. Which will it be Ilya?