|Kovalchuk has benefitted from Jacques Lemaire's defensive wisdom. |
wasn’t brought to New Jersey to be a defensive specialist, but that hasn’t stopped him from working closely with Jacques Lemaire to develop his two-way game.
On Tuesday, Lemaire was asked what he likes best about coaching. Winning, of course, comes first. The next best thing? Helping players like Kovalchuk reach their full potential.
“I love when they improve,” Lemaire said. “I love when a guy plays well. As an example, I work with Kovy quite a bit, spend time on video and all that. Then he goes on and does certain things that you’re proud of. That to me is the whole thing.”
A look at Kovalchuk’s stats entering Tuesday's meeting with Carolina showed 17 goals, 17 assists and a minus-24 in 52 games. That puts him on pace for a 26-goal total that would be the lowest of his career. But he’s taken other strides this season, tightening up his game away from the puck and becoming an asset on defense.
“Everybody expects me to get the points and score goals and make good plays for my linemates,” Kovalchuk said. “The defense, it’s an important part of the game and I’ve always wanted to improve that. When you have a coach like Jacques, he’s the best probably in the League to teach you what to do.”
The team signed me to be myself, not to be the Selke nominee. But definitely, everybody’s responsible for defense. When things didn’t go well offensively, you have to make sure you didn’t give up any goals. - Ilya Kovalchuk
He hasn’t had to sacrifice his offense to do it. Instead, he’s learned that defensive smarts create scoring chances.
“It’s simple things, but you just have to pay attention to that and you’re going to get even more offensive chances,” Kovalchuk explained. “If you play good position, you’re going to intercept passes and go.”
It has already ignited Kovalchuk, who had five goals and six assists through the Devils’ first 12 games of the second half. To start the year, he needed 25 games to produce those same totals.
Kovalchuk has even stabilized his plus-minus, which has ranked among the NHL’s worst this year. He’s a plus-6 during the Devils’ recent 9-1-2 run, and he's only been a minus twice during that span. Compare that to the final 12 games of the first half, when the Devils went 2-10-0 and Kovalchuk was a minus-12.
None of this has come about because Lemaire asked him to be a different player. He has simply helped No. 17 become more complete.
“He wanted me to be who I am,” Kovalchuk said. “The team signed me to be myself, not to be the Selke nominee. But definitely, everybody’s responsible for defense. When things didn’t go well offensively, you have to make sure you didn’t give up any goals. That was the base where we started from and right now you can tell we score more goals, we’re creating a lot of chances.”
Kovalchuk credited Lemaire with restoring a winning mood to a club that was lacking confidence when he took over behind the bench on Dec. 23.
“He just told me, ‘Be yourself and enjoy the game,’ because he could tell right away there wasn’t a lot of enjoyment here when we were losing and nothing was going our way," Kovalchuk recounted. "Almost all of us lost our confidence and you have to play with confidence if you want to enjoy it. The winning was the most important thing."
Down the road, this newfound versatility could be Kovalchuk's biggest weapon. Lemaire has found a role for him on the penalty kill, which has held opponents scoreless in six games during the Devils’ recent resurgence.
The more Kovalchuk brings to the table, the better.
“Maybe that’s one thing that I know, that he’s going to have less pressure if he plays two ways,” Lemaire said. “He’s going to be a better player, he will be appreciated more, because if you’re only a one-way player, and that one way doesn’t work, you’re done.
“For that amount of time that it’s not working, you’ve got a lot of eyes on you. You’re a scorer, you don’t score for 10 games, 15 games, ‘Hey, we need the goals, we need the goals.’ But if a guy does something else, but you get the guys in the organization that appreciate it and he feels good about himself. By feeling better about himself, it’s going to help him offensively, I believe that.”
Barring an offensive eruption, Kovalchuk will likely see his streak of six straight 40-goal seasons end this year. But he might be able to look back on this as the year he became the NHL's most dangerous two-way forward.
“I try to learn every day and there’s a lot of room to improve,” said Kovalchuk. “That’s what I want to do. This season’s not over yet. We’ll see what happens in two months.”