Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Darwinian Look at Phil Kessel & The Kovalchuk Model of Star Evolution

It’s no secret that the Leafs have been struggling lately, losing five straight with two coming in overtime. There are a number of culpable parties, sharing the blame for the poor showings;  Randy Carlyle’s refusal to call up Jake Gardiner, Mikhail Grabovski’s inability to produce offensively while buried in the defensive zone, uneven goaltending, and the lack of goals from Phil Kessel.

It’s likely that all of the above are contributing factors in the lack of wins, but where I disagree with the standard rationale is on why Phil Kessel has been disappointing. Recording 30 or more goals in 4 straight seasons and coming off of a 37 goal 2011-12 has made Kessel’s current 82 game pace of 28 goals inadequate to some.

Since becoming a Maple Leaf Kessel has repeatedly been labeled as a ’40 goal scorer’, based largely on his potential to do so, since he has never in fact scored 40 goals in a single season. As a result, he seems to be unfairly judged against a standard he has never actually achieved. Furthermore, he seems to be graded along a single axis, in one category (that being goals) when there is so much more a player of his calibre can contribute to a team. Phil Kessel is most certainly a sniper in the truest form, but speed and latent playmaking ability give him the tools to perhaps be more.

As a possible case study I’d like to examine the transformation of Ilya Kovalchuk. Much like Kessel, he was known primarily as a goal scorer in his early years with the Atlanta Thrashers. Kovalchuk scored 29 times in his rookie campaign and went on to amass an 6 straight seasons of 40+ goals – impressive. Not quite as awe inspiring was his Augusta-worthy plus/minus over that time, recording a -19,-24,-10, -6, -2, -12 and -12 over the same stretch. Granted, the Thrashers weren’t all that good during his tenure, so we can forgive him the plus/minus. However, it’s clear no Selke trophies were coming his way.

Digging deeper into Kovalchuk\s statistics this season we can see that his time on ice per game is over 25 minutes (10th in the NHL), making him the only forward in the top 40 for playing time. As a Thrasher, his time on ice hovered in and around 21 minutes per game. Devils coach Peter DeBoer is clearly comfortable using Kovalchuk in all situations – he regularly plays all 2 minutes of the powerplay (you don’t want to be the 2nd unit left defenseman in Jersey) and is playing a large part on the penaltykill. Prior to last season Ilya had only played over 32 minutes shorthanded once in his career. Last season he played over 88 minutes on the penalty kill and is on pace to play over 140 this season (82 games).

Taking in a game earlier this week against the Philadelphia Flyer,s it’s evident Kovalchuk is taking his role as an all round contributor seriously. In the attacking zone he will hold up if his line mates are already on the forecheck, guarding against a potential odd man rush. In the defensive zone, he regularly comes down to his goal line along the half wall to help battle for loose pucks. Yes, part of this commitment to detail is born from the Devils style of hockey, but he has bought in.

 In the lockout shortened season Kovalchuk has 10 goals in 29 games, on pace for his lowest total since his rookie season. However, when you watch him he seems to be hustling every shift and more committed to winning than at any other time in his career. Selfishly, I’d enjoy return to 40 plus goal seasons with nightly highlights (especially for my fantasy team), but to win, and win consistency, you have to do a bit of everything.

Readers will point out that Phil Kessel is not quite as talented as Kovalchuk  - which I’ll concede. The comparison is drawn more in their style of game than their exact skill sets. Kessel doesn’t possess the size of a Kovalchuk, but conversely Ilya likely doesn’t have the top end speed of Phil. However, both players are undeniably snipers, and few, if any, Stanley Cups have been won where the team’s best player can only produce in one fashion.

A change in Phil Kessel’s game would not happen overnight – changing athletes’ tendencies rarely does. But it isn’t really incumbent on Kessel to change his game alone; the coaching staff has to play a major role. Allowing Phil to change his mindset, judging the success of a shift, period, or game on a larger scale than just goals, is something Leafs management needs to lead.  Over the last two years, we've seen a definite improvement in the consistency of Kessel's effort without the puck.  Truth be told, you rarely see him gliding anywhere these days.

The trade deadline is approaching and coinciding with the big day are the annual whispers (mainly from Damien Cox) that the Leafs should explore trading Phil Kessel. I suppose no player is untradeable, but with one as talented as #81 the team would do well to look at the Kovalchuk model of star evolution and see what can be applied to ours before we bid adieu.  

No comments: