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Kovalchuk is getting defensive

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Evan Grossman | Staff Writer
Dec 1, 2006, 11:25 AM EST

Ilya Kovalchuk is all grown up. Well, sort of. Though he’s only 23-years-old, the Russian scoring machine is in his fifth NHL season, and at a time when names like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have attracted loads of attention, it’s been easy to forget about Kovalchuk.

But while those younger stars are still getting their bearings in a new league, Kovalchuk seems to have turned the corner and has settled in as not only one of the NHL’s most feared attackers, but also as a more responsible player when he doesn’t have the puck. Kovalchuk has always been able to shoot and score, but during the first few seasons of his career he didn’t exactly exhibit the kind of Selke-like attention to detail on the defensive side of the puck his coaches would have liked.

He’s in his fifth season in Atlanta now, and with constant prodding and tutelage from head coach Bob Hartley, Kovalchuk is playing with miles more maturity than we’ve ever seen

“Maturing is the key word here,” the demanding Hartley said. “I think he’s more poised. He’s a plus player right now so obviously that’s our objective, to make him a plus player so that he can understand his responsibility in the three zones. He’s still a young man, and we tend to forget his age because he came to the NHL at such a young age. He’s almost like a good veteran in the NHL, but he’s still a young man and I think that he’s going to get better and better. Right now, he’s a big part of this hockey club.”

It would be crazy to expect an 18-year old NHL rookie to know how to truly play the game, especially a kid who never played the North American style before. Kovalchuk went through an obvious learning process, even if he made scoring look so easy with 108 goals in his first three seasons. An indictment of his inexperience in the defensive zone, even with all those goals and a total of 205 points in his first three years, Kovalchuk was a minus-19 his rookie year, a minus-24 in his sophomore season and minus-10 in 2003-04. Amazingly, despite all his offensive gifts and that blistering shot, he was on the ice for far more goals against his team. He has never been confused with defensive dynamos like Rod Brind’Amour, John Madden or Jere Lehtinen.

Last season, the first season with the new rules designed to reward players like Kovalchuk, he scored a career-high 52 goals and 98 points, but was still a minus-6. He was still a defensive liability. Since he was hired by the Thrashers midway through the 2002-03 season, Hartley has made it his mission to turn Kovalchuk into a more responsible defender and this year, the prodigy seems to have turned a corner.

“I just want to be plus,” Kovalchuk says with a laugh. “Plus-1, I’ll take.”

Through the first quarter of the season, Kovalchuk scored 16 goals and 31 points in 26 games, but more importantly, he was a plus-4 for the first-place Thrashers.

“I’ve always been a minus and that was the weaker side of my game, I think,” Kovalchuk told “But this year, I’m plus so far, so it’s the most important thing because if we want to make the playoffs, we need everyone to be responsible.”

Hartley is continually coaching Atlanta’s most explosive player to be a more rounded presence on the ice. They spend hours going over video, and the student appears to have seen the light and learned the lessons well. Kovalchuk now understands not only how to play the game at both ends, he also knows how to be a winner, a player Hartley isn’t afraid to have out there at critical moments.

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