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NEWS

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

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AWAY
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STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 MTL 65 41 18 6 175 146 88
2 NYI 66 42 21 3 211 185 87
3 TBL 66 40 20 6 217 173 86
4 NYR 63 39 17 7 197 155 85
5 DET 62 36 15 11 182 160 83
6 PIT 63 36 18 9 182 158 81
7 WSH 66 35 21 10 194 164 80
8 BOS 63 31 22 10 168 165 72
9 FLA 65 28 23 14 159 185 70
10 PHI 65 28 25 12 173 187 68
11 OTT 62 28 23 11 176 167 67
12 NJD 64 27 27 10 144 165 64
13 TOR 65 26 34 5 175 199 57
14 CBJ 63 26 33 4 163 201 56
15 CAR 62 24 31 7 144 167 55
16 BUF 64 19 40 5 123 215 43

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
M. Cammalleri 52 24 10 5 34
A. Henrique 57 12 20 -2 32
P. Elias 54 10 17 -12 27
S. Gomez 40 5 19 -10 24
T. Zajac 56 10 10 -3 20
S. Bernier 49 10 9 0 19
A. Larsson 46 3 16 5 19
M. Ryder 44 6 12 -2 18
A. Greene 64 2 13 7 15
E. Gelinas 44 5 9 -2 14
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
C. Schneider 24 23 6 .928 2.17
K. Kinkaid 3 4 3 .915 2.59