Truth By Numbers: Why Ilya Kovalchuk should stay on Montreal’s top line

Kelly Hrudey talks about Frederik Andersen’s play in net and Ilya Kovalchuk fitting in with the Canadiens.

When the Montreal Canadiens decided to give Ilya Kovalchuk a bargain basement deal to finish out the season after a series of injuries blew up their forward group, there weren’t many negative views out there on the media landscape.

The vast majority of opinions were similar to what I wrote; don’t expect a superstar, but this is a move with no inherent risk, so what’s the harm?

However, even the most rose-coloured optimistic take likely wouldn’t have predicted that Kovalchuk would seamlessly slide into Brendan Gallagher’s spot on the Canadiens’ top line and put up five goals and four assists through his first 10 games, while playing some stellar defensive hockey on top of it.

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SPOTLIGHT PERFORMANCE

Kovalchuk’s point production has been great, but more important than that in my opinion is his line with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar has remained incredibly dominant at controlling the flow of play with Kovalchuk on the right wing instead of Gallagher.

For Kovalchuk, that’s an even more impressive feat than his point production when you compare to how he looked in Los Angeles.

Playing on his strong side as a right hander, but off-wing considering he’s a natural left winger, the Canadiens have been crushing teams into dust while Kovalchuk has been on the ice, especially in the inner slot area where his line is getting three shots on goal every 20 minutes and allowing just over one. Any team would kill for that ratio and their dominance as a line carries through the larger sample size metrics, though not quite as strong.

What’s interesting is that Kovalchuk himself isn’t really driving that much offence. At 5-on-5, Kovalchuk has been involved in creating 5.43 scoring chances every 20 minutes since he joined the Canadiens, and among forwards with 100 or more minutes played, that ranks just ninth on the team, only outpacing Nate Thompson’s 4.48.

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Per 20 minutes Kovalchuk ranks seventh in shot attempts, fourth in shots on goal, eighth in scoring chances, fourth in scoring chances on net, but third in inner slot shots behind only his linemates. His passing game is a bit stronger as he ranks fifth on the team in completed offensive zone passes, fifth in slot passes, third in passes off the rush, and second in East-West passes — but he’s not dominating here either.

But there are areas where Kovalchuk has really excelled at keeping the offence going. He’s ranked second on the team in offensive zone loose puck recoveries and first in puck battle win percentage. Who would have guessed that it would be Kovy’s physicality that set him apart?

While he’s no longer one of the most dangerous shooters in the league, Kovalchuk’s playmaking remains pretty strong, and his physicality has helped fill the gap left behind by the absence of Gallagher, who is a forechecking beast.

On top of all that Kovalchuk hasn’t been a defensive liability. He’s posted the second-lowest defensive zone turnover rate on the team among forwards after Tatar, and third-lowest in the neutral zone. It’s easy to see why he’s had success and earned the trust of his coach.

However, Gallagher is back now and Kovalchuk has been shifted down a line, but I wonder if that is the wisest move short-term. Gallagher has a long history of driving play and that line with Danault and Tatar is a top-10 line in the NHL when the trio is united, but they’ve remained excellent with Kovalchuk.

That gives the Canadiens an opportunity to spread out their depth and use Gallagher to either insulate rookie Nick Suzuki at centre with an aggressive player who pushes play forward, or squeeze more offence out of the high-flying Max Domi while adding some much-needed defensive presence.

Montreal’s goal right now probably shouldn’t be to desperately push towards the playoffs, but if they’re saying they’re not giving up, it would be interesting to see them take more advantage of their depth by using Gallagher on another line.

THE QUESTION

This week Steve Dangle is interested in the data behind the results that help create his “Dang Its” series, specifically why one team appears on it so often…

“Everyone knows the New Jersey Devils aren’t good, but they’re also not the Red Wings. And yet they show up on the Dang Its all the time. Is there anything to back up that they’re particularly mistake prone, or are their mistakes just always huge?”

Usually when a team is giving up really awful-looking goals or scoring chances, the issue comes down to puck management either in the defensive or neutral zones. Because as bad as you can be without the puck, it looks far worse when you make a mistake that forces at least one skater out of position.

That isn’t the case with Jersey this year — at least not at even strength, where they’re pretty much dead on average in turnover rate, ranking 16th in the offensive zone, 14th in the defensive zone, 23rd in the neutral zone, and 15th overall. Being in the bottom-10 in the neutral zone certainly isn’t good, but it’s not an area where they’re so much worse than anyone else that they must be constantly getting dummied in hilarious ways because of it.

The next place I usually look to is what happens when a team is desperate to relieve pressure? But the Devils are actually decent at that once they get the puck. They have the second-best dump out success rate in the league, so they’re not turning the puck over while desperately attempting to clear the zone.

The issue as I can see it comes in two areas. One is that they struggle at stopping opposing rushes, allowing 42.2 controlled entries against every 60 minutes, which is better than only the Chicago Blackhawks, who are the league’s worst defensive team. That leads to the Devils giving up more chances on net off the rush than any other team, with 4.91 per 60 minutes.

But there’s an even bigger issue.

The Devils give up the third-most slot passes in the league and the passes they allow are more dangerous than the league average as well. No team gives up more one-timers on net than the Devils, and no team’s goalies face a higher percentage of their shots as one-timers than the Devils’ 13.4 per cent.

The slot passes are dangerous even if they aren’t immediately converted into a one-timer, but the Devils also give up the most one-timers in the league from the slot and inner slot. The way the Devils defend passes is, to be kind, inept.

When you’re constantly letting pucks go through the middle of the ice without any disruption, your positioning is clearly not very good, and it’s only going to get worse once the passes get through and panic sets in.

Whether this is a roster or structural issue, it can not be left unattended in the off-season if the Devils want to rebound in 2020-21.

QUICK HITS

• The Devils allow opponents to complete 109.8 offensive zone passes every 60 minutes, the third-highest mark in the league. On the other end of the spectrum are the Carolina Hurricanes, who only allow 78.2. It’s very difficult to make a pass in the Hurricanes’ zone.

• Per SPORTLOGiQ’s expected goals model, the top-two even strength teams in the NHL are the Carolina Hurricanes (57.4 per cent) and Vegas Golden Knights (54.9 per cent). Those two also lead the league in icings per 60 minutes. Is there something they know that we don’t? Is the NHL too lenient on teams who ice the puck as a strategy? Or is that completely random?

• The teams that force their opponents to ice the puck the most? Also the Hurricanes and Golden Knights.

• One thing you always hear hockey people talk about when it comes to playoff hockey is the ability to win or at least draw one-vs-one puck battles. If that’s truly very important, the Edmonton Oilers might need to worry a little. They win the lowest percentage of those puck battles of any team at just 27.7 per cent.

• Teams around the league are dumping the puck in a lot more often this season, but who recovers those dump-ins and creates possessions most efficiently? If you expected a team with a blue collar mentality, you’d be right. The Blues lead the league in recovering 39.3 per cent of their dump-ins. However, they only turn 19.5 per cent of those recoveries into scoring chances, which ranks way down at 20th.

• The league leaders at turning dump-ins into scoring chances are the Carolina Hurricanes, again. The Hurricanes recover only 35.4 per cent of their dump-ins, the 20th-best mark in the league, but they turn a league-high 23.7 per cent of those recoveries into scoring chances. They’re a scary team.

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