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Kovalchuk embracing two-way role

Improved defensive play has triggered offensive opportunities

Tuesday, 02.08.2011 / 2:31 PM / News
By Eric Marin
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Kovalchuk embracing two-way role
Kovalchuk has benefitted from Jacques Lemaire's defensive wisdom.
Ilya Kovalchuk 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.”

SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 p - BOS 82 54 19 9 261 177 117
2 y - PIT 82 51 24 7 249 207 109
3 x - TBL 82 46 27 9 240 215 101
4 x - MTL 82 46 28 8 215 204 100
5 x - NYR 82 45 31 6 218 193 96
6 x - PHI 82 42 30 10 236 235 94
7 x - CBJ 82 43 32 7 231 216 93
8 x - DET 82 39 28 15 222 230 93
9 WSH 82 38 30 14 235 240 90
10 NJD 82 35 29 18 197 208 88
11 OTT 82 37 31 14 236 265 88
12 TOR 82 38 36 8 231 256 84
13 CAR 82 36 35 11 207 230 83
14 NYI 82 34 37 11 225 267 79
15 FLA 82 29 45 8 196 268 66
16 BUF 82 21 51 10 157 248 52

STATS

2013-2014 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Jagr 82 24 43 16 67
P. Elias 65 18 35 -4 53
T. Zajac 80 18 30 3 48
A. Henrique 77 25 18 3 43
M. Zidlicky 81 12 30 -3 42
M. Ryder 82 18 16 -6 34
A. Greene 82 8 24 3 32
E. Gelinas 60 7 22 -3 29
D. Zubrus 82 13 13 1 26
R. Clowe 43 7 19 -10 26
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
C. Schneider 16 15 12 .921 1.97
M. Brodeur 19 14 6 .901 2.51