Kovalchuk Takes Over the Role of Leading Man
Ilya Kovalchuk skated toward an opening along the boards, his stick hugging the ice, clearly longing for the puck.
As it slid his way, Kovalchuk coiled the lumber behind his head, then abruptly sent it hurtling back toward the ice in one furious, yet graceful motion.
Stick meets puck. Puck meets net. Game over.
“I have a lot of shots every night,” Kovalchuk would say later. “I knew it was coming.”
Another vintage goal. Another fist-pumping celebration from the new Russian Rocket. Another win for the surprising Atlanta Thrashers.
This is the Kovalchuk most ordinary hockey fans pay to see -- a LeBron on ice, the guy who’s brash enough to take on an entire team and talented enough to occasionally pull it off.
It’s all there. The shot. The speed. The power. The moves. The innovation. The cockiness.
“He can pretty much do whatever he wants out there,” teammate Daniel Tjarnqvist said. “He can probably beat every defenseman in the league, no matter who it is.”
While Kovalchuk earns accolades with his scoring -- he had an NHL-leading 14 goals going into the weekend -- it’s the less-glorious facets of the game that have made him a true superstar at age 20 and helped the Thrashers challenge for the Southeast Division lead.
Kovalchuk once approached defense very warily. He occasionally drifted back toward his end of the ice but usually lurked near the blue line, hoping for a breakout pass that might give him a chance to score. Many times, he watched the other team score against his outmanned teammates.
That began to change when Bob Hartley took over as coach midway through last season. He wouldn’t let Kovalchuk get away with ignoring half the game.
“I’m sure it’s the new coach,” Thrasher center Marc Savard said. “He gives Ilya a tough time. He gives Ilya some coaching. Ilya needs a little guidance. That’s what Bob is doing.”
Hartley took over a team that followed Kovalchuk’s lead, taking a hands-off approach to defense. The Thrashers gave up more goals than any team in the league a year ago, a trait that couldn’t continue if the team wanted to make the playoffs for the first time.
“The National Hockey League is not a one-way game,” center Patrik Stefan said. “You might be able to score 50 goals, but you have other responsibilities, too.”
It’s easy to point to the tragic wreck that killed Dan Snyder and left All-Star Dany Heatley with a serious knee injury as the turning point for Kovalchuk. Granted, he knew more was expected after the high-speed crash.
But Kovalchuk already had crossed a threshold before one teammate lost his life and another -- the Thrashers best all-around player -- was left facing criminal charges and the possibility of missing the season.
“He went away in April,” general manager Don Waddell said of Kovalchuk. “When he came back in September, he had grown up. I know it was only four or five months, but we saw a definite change in his maturity level when he came back. He was ready to take this team on his back and be a big part of our success.”
And the wreck? “Maybe that made him more focused,” Waddell said. “But with or without the accident, he still would have played a big role. He’s 20 years old now. He’s been in the league two years. He just grew up.”
But the loss of Heatley definitely put more of a scoring burden on Kovalchuk -- and made him more of a marked man for opposing teams.
Heatley led the team with 41 goals last season, three more than Kovalchuk. Together, they were the most dynamic young duo in the league. But with “Heater” sidelined, Slava Kozlov was the only other player on the team who scored even 20 goals a year ago.
Others have responded. Ronald Petrovicky already has a career high for goals. Jeff Cowan already has a career high for points.
But Kovalchuk has been leading the way ever since he showed up for training camp in the best shape of his life -- physically and mentally. He worked with the weights all summer, bulking up his body. He changed his mental approach, helping him cope with the inevitable ups and downs of a long, grueling season.
“His frustration level has changed,” Waddell said. “He doesn’t go around taking bad penalties when things don’t go his way.”
Kovalchuk recently went four games without scoring a goal, his longest drought of the season. He kept plugging away, finally beating Boston with an overtime goal on Wednesday.
“I guess I’ve come back,” he said, flashing a devilish grin.
Kovalchuk falls into some of his old habits every now and then. He’ll approach a 1-on-3 like he’s got the advantage. He’ll still get a little lackadaisical at the defensive end. He usually passes up the chance to pass, taking far more shots than any of his teammates.
When those things occur, he’s got Hartley breathing down his neck -- challenging him during video sessions, ragging on him at practice, prodding him constantly to take more of a leadership role.
Kovalchuk’s English -- nonexistent when he first joined the Thrashers -- has improved to the point where he doesn’t require a translator. He’s growing more and more comfortable in the locker room.
“I’ll ask for his input, and he always comes up with some very good answers,” Hartley said. “In between periods, he’s a lot more vocal than he used to be. There’s definitely some leadership abilities in Kovy. That’s good to see.”
The coach also has noticed a passion to succeed that gets obscured by Kovalchuk’s enormous talent.
“He’s one of the youngest players I’ve ever coached, but he has a tremendous desire to win, a tremendous desire to compete,” Hartley said. “At this level, that’s rarely seen.”