Micro Analysis: Ilya Kovalchuk is better than advertised

Kovalchuk got a chance to show what he can do, and he’s showing us he can do a lot.

It was another embarrassing loss to the lowly Red Wings last night, and the playoffs are rapidly becoming a foolish dream. This will probably be another lost season for the Montreal Canadiens. “Easy” points escape them. The urgency of the situation seems to not have impressed itself on the team — or they are simply incapable of pulling the weight of injuries. One way or another, the time to dissect all of this will come later.

For now, there are still positives to concentrate on. The main one over the past two days has been the play of Ilya Kovalchuk.

There is something to be said about having no expectations. That usually makes for the best surprises. It’s only been two games, and there’s plenty of time for Kovalchuk’s performance to crash — he has not played much hockey in the past couple of months and keeping a high level of intensity can prove hard once the adrenaline of the first few games runs out — but still, the player that showed up in Montreal is not the disengaged and slow forward I thought he would be. Far from it. In half the shifts he has taken in bleu, blanc, et rouge, Kovalchuk has been one of, if not the best player on the ice.

Calling him a defensive stalwart would be a stretch. He still has some moments where he double-covers opponents, going for the puck and leaving someone behind. But he tries. Those mistakes could fix themselves with continued high engagement and more time inside Montreal’s system.

Right now, more often than not, Kovalchuk positively contributes to defence. Here are a few examples.

The Russian forward plays defence aggressively. He prefers the winger defensive roles, and will switch with his centreman to move up the zone the first chance he can. But he doesn’t seem to cheat offensively at all. On the contrary, he collapses harder on opponents lower in the zone than most other skaters in his position.

In the first couple of games, he has been adding an extra layer of protection to the slot, cutting opposing passes heading there. It leaves space behind him, but he has shown himself aware of player movement to stop the odd back-door attempt.

He has also not been one to gun out of the zone, even if that is sometimes dictated by the Habs’ breakouts. He supports teammates. He remains low and finds outlets under pressure quite effectively, looking across the ice to hit linemates inside space after attracting opponents to himself.

Again, that might be his need to make a good first impression; nobody reveals flaws on a first date. But at least he shows himself capable of thinking defence first.

Another pleasant surprise is how hard he has been playing. He goes out of his way to throw hits, adding to the impression that he’s giving it his all. Big body slams are just a bonus. The real value is in how hard the winger has been skating.

It’s very noticeable on the forecheck. Kovalchuk doesn’t stop. He strides almost all the way into opponents and looks to free the puck from their grasp any way he can. If possession moves, he tracks it back at full momentum. He’s not all that quick, but a high motor and effort can compensate for a lot of flaws, including the limitations of a 36-year-old body.

The last sequence in the video led to the first goal for Ben Chiarot on Monday. Kovalchuk successively battled against two opponents on the boards to free the puck, and then followed it up by beating his check in a race to the front of the net to serve as a screen for the release of his defenceman.

It’s a sequence many coaches could use to showcase the immediate benefits of a strong work ethic. And it features a forward who was healthy scratched for long stretches in his return to the NHL.

Experience complements effort there. At 6’3” and 223 pounds, Kovalchuk is imposing, and has the skill to know how to use his size to his advantage. It’s a deadly combination.

Take a look at some of the sequences below.

As he skates in the slot to make a play on a pass or a shot coming to the net, he neutralizes defenders with his rear end. He turns to place it between his check and the puck, avoiding stick lifts. In the second clip, as he attempts a deflection, he backs his posterior toward a defender, forcing that defender to back off and brace for a reverse hit, which in turn makes the defender unable to neutralize Kovalchuk’s stick.

A player like Brendan Gallagher uses some of the same techniques to create scoring chances, but even with the added weight of his giant heart, the forward doesn’t match the size advantage of Kovalchuk. This is not saying that the Russian forward is more effective. Gallagher should absolutely reprise his role on the top line when he comes back; he’s a third of one of the best lines in hockey. Yet Kovalchuk still brings a different skill and physical mix to the Montreal squad, one they sorely miss, especially with Joel Armia out. He can finish in tight and set up others just as well.

Right now, if Kovalchuk can maintain his high level of play, especially on the defensive side, he will continue being a great complement to just about any line configuration. He can play both wings and worked especially well with Nick Suzuki and Max Domi on certain shifts last night. The Red Wings are not the best defensive team, and in turn, not the best measure of the success of a trio, but the cumulative talent of those three forwards could likely hurt even better defending teams if they can keep the puck on the offensive side.

All in all, a Kovalchyuk resurgence could give the Habs options. He brings a much-needed offensive touch on the ice and could help them avoid a complete crash of their season, though that might feel inevitable right now. If it comes to it, he also becomes another asset at the trade deadline, or even a piece they could potentially re-sign to another inexpensive deal.

Who knows? We are just two games into Ilya Kovalchuk Habs tenure. But it’s at least something to get excited about.

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