On November 22, 2008 I wrote a blog post titled "Calling Out Ilya Kovalchuk" in which I took Kovalchuk to task. My complaints were as follows.
- Despite being heavily promoted by the Thrashers as their star and the "face of the franchise" Ilya Kovalchuk did very little in the way of media relations for the Atlanta Thrashers.
- Kovalchuk was passing instead of shooting. The reason he is paid the big money is to score goals. He was passing up obvious shooting opportunities and costing the Thrashers wins because of it.
- An additional complaint (which I had mentioned in some other posts) was his weak "I'm near my guy" defensive zone play. Also a big problem was his tendency to loop back into his defensive zone with the puck only to turn it over with a bad pass.
Then the Thrashers awarded Kovalchuk the role of team captain my first week here at SB Nation. I choose not to comment on that move at the time. Frankly, I though it was a sub-optimal choice and I preferred Colby Armstrong or Nic Havelid. The Thrashers biggest weakness was allowing goals--how could you name one of the worst defensive players as team captain when your captain is supposed to set the example for the team?
Over one month has passed since Kovalchuk has named captain and frankly he's been much improved on the ice. He has returned to doing he always did well--fire the puck. Back on November, 22 he was average just 2.68 shots per game and today his season average is up to 3.40 shots per game. As the shots have gone up, so have the number of goals scored. The goals are simply a manifestation of increased offensive pressure.
Kovalchuk has taken on a larger media role doing more intermission and post-game interviews. Just this week, SportsSouth aired a behind-the-scenes segment with Ilya and his family. To be honest, it was not compelling television--but I give Kovalchuk full marks for giving his many fans a chance to learn more about their favorite player.
But the most remarkable change I've detected is in Ilya's defensive and a reduction in the number of awkward passes and bad turnovers. To put it simply, Kovalchuk is doing a much better job of moving the puck cleanly out of own defensive zone, through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone. This is significant reason for the Thrashers improved play in January and February. Their best player is being more controlled and efficient with the puck. That's a huge plus.
Throughout his career Kovalchuk's Corsi number has been just brutal. When Ilya is on the ice at Even Strength the Thrashers are usually out chanced by a big margin. It is tough to make the playoffs when you're being out gunned whenever your best player is out there on the ice. So far in February, Kovalchuk's Corsi number has been +1 (which means the Thrashers have attempted one more offensive shot than than the opposition). Now +1 might not sound like much, but it is a big improvement--his previous monthly totals this season were -19, -24, -30, -50.
Now I'm not going to go crazy over one good month--but in this case the Corsi numbers confirm what my eyeballs are telling me: Kovalchuk is making fewer turnovers, his defense is tighter, he's not backpedaling into his defensive zone with the puck as much. All of those are subtle but important improvements.
Will it continue? Will it last? I certainly can't predict the future. Maybe this is just a burst of enthusiasm that will wear off with time and Ilya's bad habits will return. On the other hand, he is just 25--most NHL players show improvement in their age 18-25 years and then they hit their peak years from 25-30. So Kovalchuk is still in that window where a significant developmental step forward would not be a total surprise.
Is this part of the maturation process or a temporary blip? I don't know, but it gives me another reason to tune and watch Thrasher games (In addition to watching Bogosian develop of course.) What I can say that this version of Ilya Kovalchuk is much more deserving of the "superstar" label and I'm hoping it continues.