Hats off to Ilya
Kovalchuk busting out with impressive goal binge to start third season
Posted: Friday October 24, 2003 5:16AM; Updated: Friday October 24, 2003 11:48AM
While scoring around the rest of the league is down, Ilya Kovalchuk is trying to bring the high-flying '80s back to the NHL.
The Atlanta Thrashers plan to display all hats tossed on the ice in celebration of a hat trick in a new case on the main concourse at Philips Arena this season. They might want to build an expansion to the case (or maybe even the arena) if Kovalchuk is going to continue filling nets at this rate.
In Thursday's 4-2 win over Nashville, Kovalchuk recorded his third career hat trick and his second in the past three games. The 20-year-old native of Tver, Russia (a city of 453,200 about 100 miles north of Moscow in the Tverskaya Oblast region) is tearing up the league at the beginning of his third season.
Kovalchuk's nine goals in seven games have helped the Thrashers get off to a franchise-best 4-0-2-1 start, with the team earning 11 out of a possible 14 points so far. Atlanta didn't earn its 11th point until its 18th game last season, on Nov. 19. And by that point, the Thrashers were already 5-11-1-1 and well on their way to sealing Curt Fraser's fate when December brought another slump.
While the rest of the league is averaging just 4.7 goals per game through the first two weeks, Kovalchuk is averaging more than a goal per game himself and could become the first player to reach 60 goals since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr both did it for Pittsburgh in 1995-96. Seventy markers might be wishful thinking, especially considering that it's been 10 years since anyone reached that level (Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny each netted 76 in 1992-93). Wayne Gretzky holds the all-time record with 92 in 1981-82.
Kovalchuk is on pace for 105 goals and his average of 1.286 goals per game has him slightly ahead of pace to match Gretzky's legendary 1981-82 season, when The Great One scored his 50th goal of the season on Dec. 30, 1981, in the Oilers' 39th game. Gretzky averaged 1.282 goals per game over the first 39 games to reach that incredible mark. OK, OK, so Kovalchuk is likely to fall off the pace at some point, but it's fun to dream, right?
With neutral zone traps, left wing locks, rampant obstruction and goaltenders wearing pillows for pads before this season, the focus has been on defense and low-scoring hockey for nearly a decade. The performance of the Thrashers' precocious young left winger is trying to stomp those notions into oblivion and bring exciting, fast-paced action -- the style favored by Kovalchuk's idol, legendary Russian left winger Valeri Kharlamov -- back into vogue.
"It's my job to score goals," Kovalchuk said. "I love to score here at Philips Arena. The fans go crazy, everybody is happy. I like it."
Against the Predators, Kovalchuk first sent the home fans into a frenzy on a one-timer from the point on a two-man advantage midway through the second period. His second came just 3:38 later -- with a J.P. Vigier tally sandwiched in between -- when Kovalchuk created a turnover as the Preds tried to break out through the neutral zone, then got the return pass from Randy Robitaille and beat Tomas Vokoun to his stick side with a crafty little flip just inside the far post. The third came on an empty-netter, but they all count the same.
"He's a great player," Predators head coach Barry Trotz said. "He's got great hands and he's got speed. He wants the puck all the time. He got three goals and he will be in the Hall of Fame if keeps scoring like that in the National Hockey League, there's no question. But we never got a piece of him all night and we have to set that stage that way and we didn't. He got the hat trick and he deserved it."
Kovalchuk played a relatively sane 21:09 in Thursday's win against the Predators after averaging 24:34 over the first six games, which had ranked him third behind teammate Marc Savard and Mario Lemieux among ice time for forwards. But his standing as Atlanta's one true sniper means that he rarely leaves the ice during power plays. Head coach Bob Hartley kept Kovalchuk on the ice for 9:55 of the 11:30 the Thrashers were on the man advantage against Nashville. Kovalchuk's conditioning is so exceptional that Hartley won't bat an eyelash at playing him 27 or 28 minutes this season, as he did on Tuesday in Tampa when Kovalchuk played a career-high 28:40.
"If I gave him any more ice time, I would have to put him in the net," Hartley joked. "I'm not sure that he'd like that. Ilya is a force of nature. That's the best way to describe him. There's a guy who can go on great shifts, and then 30 seconds later he's ready to go at it again. He recuperates very well -- he's a hell of an athlete."
Kovalchuk's incredible start has been magnified by his having to deal with the death of Dan Snyder and the loss of Dany Heatley as a result of the injuries he suffered in a violent car accident on Sept. 29. Kovalchuk had dined with his two teammates at Tavern at Phipps immediately before their tragic wreck. The loss of Heatley created a leadership void that Kovalchuk has filled admirably.
"His fast start has been very important with Dany out," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. "We needed guys to step forward, and Ilya certainly has done that. He's taken this team on his back. He wants to be the go-go guy and he's proven that he's capable of being that. He's got nine goals in seven games and it's been an unbelievable start."
"He's amazing," Thrashers center Patrik Stefan said. "He's always had the talent and he's having a breakout season, as you can just see with two hat tricks in the first seven games. It's been huge. Everybody expected us to let down, because Dany was a big loss for us -- he was a 40-goal scorer. But that's why every guy stepped it up a little bit more. When you have 20 guys playing on the same page, good things happen."
A change in team strategy necessitated by Heatley's absence could be one of the catalysts that takes Kovalchuk from the "very good" category into the elite level.
After playing the left half boards in his first two seasons, Kovalchuk has moved to the point on the power play, taking the spot that Heatley used to fill. The result has been a ton of slap shots from the blue line, as opposed to his formerly favored wrist shot. With an NHL-high 35 shots on goal, Kovalchuk is on pace to put 410 pucks on the net this season, which would dwarf Glen Murray's league-leading total from last season (331), Bill Guerin's from two years ago (355) and even Pavel Bure's from 2000-01 (384).
"On the power play, I'm in a really good position," Kovalchuk said. "Guys are giving me the puck for the one-timer and I get good chances. I played the point back when I played in Russia. It's a really good spot, you know. I have lots of shots and lots of chances. I practice a lot at it and it's working. The goals are coming and the wins are coming."
Part of the reason for the great start has been Kovalchuk's improved play in his own end. Prior to this season, not only was Kovalchuk not on the same page defensively as his teammates, but he wasn't even reading the same book.
When Kovalchuk came to North America for the 2001-02 season, he was straight out of the Pavel Bure School of Cherry Picking. Kovalchuk ventured back into his own zone so infrequently that he probably wouldn't have been able to pick Milan Hnilicka out of a police lineup. But in the sound, two-way tradition of Russian forwards Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Petrov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Fedorov, somewhere deep down Kovalchuk possessed the skills to play solid defensive hockey if the desire was unleashed.
"I think his all-around game has been impressive, for sure," Stefan said. "You can see he's killing penalties, too. He's out on the PK and that would've never happened in the first two years. He's improved his defensive game and he still gets the goals. So that's even better for the team."
The coaching switch from Fraser to Hartley looked like a powderkeg that might be ready to blow when you consider that Hartley's reputation for being tough on young players was combining with Kovalchuk's hardheaded desire to focus almost solely on offense. But Kovalchuk has steadily worked on his defense and earned the trust of his coach to the point where he now takes an occasional shift on the penalty kill. And it's hard to argue with Hartley's defensive leanings, considering the team's 23-14-7-2 (.598 winning percentage) in the 46 games since he took over in Atlanta last January.
After committing himself to Hartley's team style and deciding that backchecking wasn't one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Kovalchuk has emerged as a pretty solid defensive player. Kovalchuk wasn't asked to play much defense when he scored 42 goals in 51 games for Spartak Moscow as a 17-year-old in 2000-01, but now that he's grasping the defensive concepts of Hartley's system, Kovalchuk is becoming a responsible defensive player. While his nine goals are eye-popping, his plus-3 rating may be the most impressive stat. After being minus-43 through his first two seasons, Kovalchuk's defensive play has put a smile on the face of his demanding bench boss.
"He's committed and he wants to get better on the defensive side," Hartley said. "I want him to be very responsible. I'm asking a lot out of a 20-year-old kid, but on the other hand, he's playing like an elite player. And he is an elite player."
The director of player personnel for a 2003 Western Conference playoff team told me last month that he expected likely 2004 No. 1 overall draft pick Alexander Ovechkin to eventually become a better all-around player than Kovalchuk because "Ovechkin gets his goals in the flow of the game while still playing solidly in all three zones, whereas Kovalchuk always has one eye on the net."
Think that gentleman might want to change his tune now that Kovalchuk is off to a good start on both ends of the ice?
"His all-around game has been especially good," Waddell said. "That's why he's warranted more ice time, because he's played solid at both ends of the ice. I thought he was capable of playing good defense because he's a smart player. When you grow up in Russia, you learn to play defense, even if you are an offensive player. We knew he was capable of it."
To be honest, there doesn't seem to be much that Kovalchuk isn't capable of anymore. If he keeps up this incredible play, it will be interesting to see which happens first -- the Thrashers clinching their first playoff spot or the engraver finishing up Kovalchuk's name on the Rocket Richard Trophy.
Because both are looking pretty likely, thanks to the Terror from Tver.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.