The final sequence of the New Jersey Devils' overtime win over the Washington Capitals Friday night was a microcosm of where forwards Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk stand in the fantasy landscape at this stage in their careers.
Ovechkin, trying to create a scoring chance in transition, lost his footing before losing the puck, causing an odd-man rush in the opposite direction.
Then, despite his teammate fanning on the ensuing shot, Kovalchuk didn't give up on the play. The Devils' sniper swooped around the Capitals' net, parked himself on the left wing and cashed in on a feed from Marek Zidlicky to win the game and keep Washington winless this season.
While it may only be a single play in a 48-game season, it really represented what has been a contrasting opening week for fantasy owners who spent first-round draft picks on either Kovalchuk or Ovechkin. Kovalchuk, 29, has fully lived up to fantasy expectations (2 G, 2 A, plus-5, 6 PIM, 1 PPP, 13 SOG), but Ovechkin is off to the least productive four-game start of his NHL career (0 G, 1 A, minus-1, 4 PIM, 0 PPP, 13 SOG). Both averaged better than a point per game playing in the Kontinental Hockey League during the work stoppage, but only Kovalchuk has risen to the occasion since returning to NHL action.
Ovechkin's fantasy stock still remains high because of elite-level category coverage. Of the NHL's six players to collect 300-plus shots on goal last year, Ovechkin (LW eligibility in Yahoo! leagues) was the only one to also record 200-plus hits. But don't let that distract you from a significant drop in point production over the last few seasons (109 points in 2009-10, 85 in 2010-11, 65 in 2011-12). By all appearances, the single-season record holder for goals by a left wing (65) no longer packs the same offensive punch from a fantasy standpoint.
Meanwhile in New Jersey, Kovalchuk's strong start this year can be attributed to a healthy Travis Zajac, who is centering New Jersey's top line. Since coming to the Devils in a late-season trade last year, Zidlicky has settled into his role on the Devils' power play unit (2 PPP in three games). The Devils blueliner has kept the team's offense flowing following the off-season departure of Zach Parise to the Minnesota Wild.
And remember, Kovalchuk (LW eligibility) was himself mired in a dry spell during his first full season in New Jersey. During that difficult 2010-11 campaign, he registered a minus-26 rating and only 60 points as the Devils missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
Since leading the Devils to the Stanley Cup Final last summer, Kovalchuk has continued to pace the club, which is off to a 3-0-0 start in 2012-13. And with Parise now in Minnesota, Kovy has already shown an ability to embrace change in New Jersey. Despite having to adjust to a new coach in Peter DeBoer last season, Kovalchuk finished third in the League in shots on goal (310), fifth in points (83), tied for fifth in power-play points (29) and tied for fourth in short-handed points (5). Simply put, few players League-wide were as explosive as Kovalchuk last season.
Ovechkin, meanwhile, has yet to find his rhythm as he acclimates to new coach Adam Oates' offensive system this year. Ovi lined up at right wing for the majority of the Capitals' first three games, but is now making a transition back to the left side. It hasn't helped that he has had to adapt to three different coaches over the last 14 months.
But while Ovechkin, 27, could still pick up the pace and finish among the League leaders in a number of statistical categories, Kovalchuk's presence on the Devils' front line is a more reassuring situation at this point.
The vast majority of fantasy drafts are already in the books, but live draft slots are still technically open until February 25. If you're drafting a team and choosing between these two Russian forwards in the middle of the first round, be aware that Kovalchuk has emerged as a slightly safer bet than Ovechkin.
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