NEWARK, N.J. -- As Ilya Kovalchuk continues to pile up numbers and earn the trust from Devils coach Pete DeBoer to play in all situations, the perception of him around the League appears to be changing.
"If you had a negative opinion of Ilya, I don't know how it can't be positive now," NHL Network analyst and former Flames GM Craig Button told NHL.com. "And, yes, there are people around the League that have had a negative opinion of him. If you want me to go one step further, in my view Alexander Ovechkin could improve his game by watching Ilya Kovalchuk a little bit closer."
"He's on a better track," added fellow NHL Network analyst and former Devils goalie Kevin Weekes. "There is less cherry-picking and he's maturing some, too. (Jacque) Lemaire helped him and Pete has been good to him. He needs to keep doing the same things now."
Kovalchuk is finally scoring in New Jersey at the rate he was for seven-and-a-half seasons in Atlanta. He leads the team with 19 goals and is second behind Patrik Elias with 40 points. He has 7 goals in his last seven games, and five two-point games over the same span.
"Sometimes these guys get the reputation that they don't care. He has always been the hardest-working guy in practices and in games. He played big minutes in Atlanta and he was there to score goals. He needed help, support with more defensive guys with him so he could save his energy for offense. I hope people realize he is a complete player. He's certainly showing that." --Johan Hedberg on Ilya Kovalchuk
What's more interesting, though, is the defensive element he's added to his game with the Devils, one that never surfaced in Atlanta because, according to Button, the Thrashers never asked for it.
DeBoer is asking Kovalchuk to be reliable on the other end of the red line, and he's proving that he can be.
"The way he's been committed to playing our system, it has helped our team, there is no doubt," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "We all know he's going to score goals, but he's asked to do more than score goals right now with this team, and he's been embracing it. When you start making good plays, blocking shots, killing penalties, scoring PK goals -- I think you're going to open the eyes of other people."
Kovalchuk's most eye-popping stat has to be his shorthanded time on ice. He's playing a regular shift on the penalty kill for the first time since 2003-04. He's averaging 1:10 of shorthanded ice time per game for the Devils' top-ranked PK, and he's already scored two of their League-leading 11 shorthanded goals.
The only time Kovalchuk averaged more than 23 seconds of ice time on the penalty kill was in 2003-04, when he averaged 1:00 per game for the Thrashers' eighth-ranked PK unit. He averaged nine seconds of PK ice time last season and four seconds in 2009-10.
"One, he's good at it," DeBoer said of why having Kovalchuk on the PK is important. "He reads the play. He covers a lot of ice. He's got a big stick. From strictly a tools point of view, he brings a lot to the table in that situation. And, two, I think that it gives him a little different perspective on the game than the other 50 minutes that he's used to watching or playing. He has to think about defensive responsibility first. I think that's helpful."
DeBoer went on to say that having that defense-first mentality has helped Kovalchuk focus more on other parts of his game, too. Not surprisingly, Kovalchuk said he's never felt better in a Devils' uniform than he does right now, but he credited that to the team's success and the fact that he enjoys playing on the same line with Zach Parise and Adam Henrique.
"It's not an individual sport. It takes five or six guys every night to score goals and make plays," Kovalchuk said. "It's old-time hockey when one guy can make a difference in a game, not anymore."
Johan Hedberg, who played with Kovalchuk in Atlanta, said some of the credit should go to Lemaire. The defensive-oriented Lemaire was the coach in New Jersey when Kovalchuk arrived on Feb. 4, 2010, and resumed his duties after John MacLean was fired on Dec. 23, 2010.
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Lemaire attempted to work extensively on defense with Kovalchuk. The Devils appear to be reaping the benefits of that now.
"If you're as good as Kovy is, and you've been as good as him your whole career, maybe you never really learned how to play defense," Hedberg told NHL.com. "It's not that you're not trying, but who taught him how to play defensively? His first thought is, 'Oh, that puck is going to take a bounce, and I'm going to take a chance and go forward.' Now he has more defensive awareness because of what he learned the last few years."
Kovalchuk said his increased defensive awareness, specifically on the penalty kill, is tied to what DeBoer has asked of him.
"I don't think PK is very complicated," he said, "you just have to listen to the coach, what kind of system we're playing and you have to be on the same page with the other three guys."
Ironically, listening to the coach, adhering to the system, and being on the same page with his teammates were all considered flaws in Kovalchuk's game in previous seasons. The outside opinion of him was that he was a 100-foot player.
"They may have been the knocks, but you have to keep in mind that in Atlanta he was asked to be the guy," Button said. "He was asked to score goals, help the team win, fill the building. That's what he had to do.
"I remember Scotty Bowman talking about Steve Yzerman in the same light," Button continued. "Scotty said, 'They didn't ask Steve Yzerman to check or play defense. He was a prolific offensive player and he was doing exactly what they asked him to do.' So, you can't criticize players when they're doing what they're asked to do. You have to accept that.
"Scotty thought Steve had the capability to do a lot more, and Steve embraced that, too. That's the same way you have to look at Ilya. Scotty valued Steve for it, and Ilya is being valued now."
Hedberg said emphatically that any opinion of Kovalchuk being lazy before he was valued for his defensive play is way off base. He added that the only reason we're talking about Kovalchuk being a complete two-way threat now is because the Devils have other guys (Parise, Elias, Henrique, Petr Sykora and David Clarkson) that have lifted some of the scoring burden off his shoulders.
"Sometimes these guys get the reputation that they don't care. He has always been the hardest-working guy in practices and in games," Hedberg said of Kovalchuk. "He played big minutes in Atlanta and he was there to score goals. He needed help, support with more defensive guys with him so he could save his energy for offense. I hope people realize he is a complete player. He's certainly showing that."
And changing opinions in the process, though Kovalchuk truly doesn't care about that part.
"I care what the people think about me, but I really care what people think about me who know me real well," Kovalchuk said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people who talk, they've never met me, so it's not a big deal for me."