The most heard argument AGAINST a return of Ilya Kovalchuk in the NHL is that he really f*cked the New Jersey Devils by leaving them for the KHL, a couple of years into a huge contract. In 2010 the Devils acquired Kovalchuk (and defenseman Salmela) in a deal with the Atlanta Trashers for Oduya, Bergfors, Cormier and a 2010-1st round pick. Atlanta was unable to resign Kovalchuk and decided to trade him. Kovalchuk ended up signing a 15-year 100M$ deal with the New Jersey Devils after a lot of controversy about his first contract signed (17-year 102M$), which led to a penalty for the Devils for circumventing the cap. He left for the KHL during the 2013 season.
This ‘emotional’ point aside, the second most heard argument is that Kovalchuk is not good enough to play in the NHL anymore. “Kovalchuks production is not even 1 PPG in the weak KHL” (to paraphrase a popular opinion). As a long term NHL and KHL watcher I do not fully agree that the KHL is much weaker than the NHL (it is weaker but it may be closer than many think). Although there are some NHL goons who are producing at a much higher rate in the KHL this can also be due to them being highly improved instead of much weaker competition.
The so-called weak production by Kovalchuk is an argument we can actually say something sensible about by simply looking at numbers. For this analysis I will compare Kovalchuk with other Russian players: Ovechkin, Panarin and Plotnikov. I compare him with Ovechkin because he is in a lot of ways a comparable player (lots of shots, both physical players, great snipers etc.). Panarin and Plotnikov are used in the comparison because they both have played recently in the KHL and are respectively a steal and a bust (so far). I have chosen for plain shooting percentage numbers and shots per game as these numbers tend to relate 1 on 1 with the KHL. As the argument is that the KHL is much softer for producing points I left PPG out the analysis. Just to compare the numbers though: Panarin has only produced 1 year slightly over a rate of 1 PPG (his last year), Plotnikov has never reached better numbers than 0.8 PPG and Kovalchuk is hovering around 1 PPG since his comeback in the KHL.
The graphs below are created with the Sigmaplot Systat Software Inc. Some additional notes:
- Regular season numbers only. 20 GP seasons minimum. Stats for this season are per 03/08/2016.
- I could not find shooting percentages during the 2005 lockout year for Kovalchuk. This would be interesting as he also played in the KHL that year. He also played around 15 games in the KHL in the 2006 season which are not included as well.
- The 2013 numbers for Kovalchuk are combined NHL and KHL numbers.
- The players respective ages at the start of the 2017 season are Kovalchuk: 33 years, Ovechkin: 31 years, Panarin: 24 years (almost 25), Plotnikov: 26 years.
Shots per game per season:
For larger version: http://postimg.org/image/hpcjsmfdp/
Shooting percentage per season:
For larger version: http://postimg.org/image/g5oj5nc57/
Kovalchuk will be 33 soon and his production will probably go down the coming years. However, his shots per game are fairly constant throughout his career. His shooting percentage went down to around 9% this season and is clearly regressing. His SH% numbers will probably not go below 8% for a full season if he returns to the NHL, as his shot is still pretty decent.
Additionally we can see that there was no decline in shots per game when Kovalchuk went from the NHL to the KHL. His shooting percentage did not increase but even decreased after changing leagues. This is no surprise as he both became older and the fact that there are very good goalies and defensemen in the KHL as well.
You may not like Kovalchuk as a person but his numbers remain pretty solid. He is still a producer; especially in the goal column. In my opinion the Devils should try to resign Kovalchuk and give him a contract for 2 or 3 years as they could really use a pure goal scorer. If the Devils decide that they do not like him because he left them out to dry during the 2013 season they will not have a hard time finding a trade partner.
What do you think about a return of Kovalchuk?
Thanks for reading.