Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils slowly coming around

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FIRST PERIOD

Look, Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) is never going play like Jacques Lemaire did. Lemaire was an outstanding two-way forward for the Montreal Canadiens, putting him in the Hall of Fame. Kovalchuk is minus-29 for the New Jersey Devils, worst in the NHL.

But if Kovalchuk can learn to play a little like Lemaire did – and if the rest of the Devils can execute a system like the one Lemaire coaches now – there might be some hope for this 15-year, $100 million gamble.

Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils are finally showing some signs of turning things around.
(Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

There is no doubt it has been a disaster so far. Despite a recent 6-0-1 run, the Devils are 22 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and remain dead last in the NHL standings. Despite his four goals, eight points and plus-3 rating during that seven-game hot streak, Kovalchuk has only 14 goals and 29 points in 48 games overall, well below his expected output.

There is no doubt Kovalchuk has his limitations defensively. Asked what he would like to see from Kovalchuk the rest of the season, Lemaire said: “It would be great to have him play as a two-way player. It would be great.” Then he quickly qualified that by adding: “I know that he might not be a perfect two-way player – I mean, perfect, one of the best in the NHL – but I know he’s learning.”

There also seems to be a disconnect between the Devils and Kovalchuk. Lemaire said he is trying to change Kovalchuk’s game. General manager Lou Lamoriello said Kovalchuk is going through a transition. Yet Kovalchuk said: “When they sign me here, they know what they can expect from me. I don’t think they want me to change.”

In the end, the Devils need Kovalchuk to play just enough defense to fit their system, and they need their system to cover up his defensive liabilities and highlight his offensive abilities.

Lemaire, a two-time winner of the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, returned to the Devils bench just before Christmas to replace John MacLean, a rookie head coach. Since then, the Devils have become far more structured. They have played more of a puck-possession style. And they have been more successful at both ends of the ice.

“He’s very experienced guy,” Kovalchuk said of Lemaire. “He knows what button he should push to make a guy play the way he can play. Everybody think he’s defensive coach, but he change a lot and we have more offense now.”

Kovalchuk is going to change only so much. Even as teammate Patrik Elias(notes) praised Kovalchuk’s progress over the past few games, he said: “You can see that he’s not going to do it every time, because it doesn’t turn around that quickly for a guy when he hasn’t been used to playing that way.”

He is what he is. Lemaire compared this project to the one he once had in Marian Gaborik(notes) with the Minnesota Wild.

“I don’t know how much I changed (Gaborik), but it’s not easy, because they’ve been playing for years a certain way,” Lemaire said. “Now you’re trying to change a little bit their way of playing. If they don’t produce, it’s not a good thing – to me.

“But Kovy, it’s different, because he wasn’t producing that much when I started. Now he’s producing, so I keep going. But if he would stop producing, I wouldn’t talk to him about defense, because … I want to at least have what he was giving the team every night, that offense.”

The question is, where do the Devils go from here? Lemaire, 65, insists he will retire for good after this season. He is only settling things down as a favor to his old friend Lamoriello and setting the foundation for the future.

The Devils will have to hire a new coach and continue tinkering with the roster, while trying to sign pending restricted free agent Zach Parise(notes). They have to do it in a way that will maximize the return on their biggest investment, Kovalchuk, even though Lamoriello said: “We will never build around one player.”

“He’s going through a transition,” Lamoriello added. “This is a great kid. He is not a problem. He is respectful. He’s liked by his teammates. He’s going through a transition on his game, and he will be fine.”

Asked what the Devils need to do to succeed in the future, Kovalchuk said: “You never know. Especially with the salary cap, it’s tough to predict anything.”

Interesting, because one thing is certain: Especially with the salary cap, Kovalchuk isn’t going anywhere for a long time, and if the Devils don’t find a way to make this work, they will have a hard time going anywhere, either.

SECOND PERIOD

After a collision in the Winter Classic, Sidney Crosby won't be in the All-Star Game.
(Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Head shots are certain to be a hot topic over all-star weekend, with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) sitting out as he recovers from a concussion that has cost him nine games and the NHL scoring lead.

Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, and others are calling for a stronger rule on hits to the head. Rule 48, instituted last March, bans only lateral hits in which the head is targeted or the principle point of contact. Straight-on hits to the head remain legal, and there is no punishment for incidental contact.

But Lamoriello is among those preaching another kind of caution.

“No one wants to see anyone hurt,” Lamoriello said. “Sometimes when a quality player gets hurt, it’s magnified a little more rather than, say, when it happens every day. But we have to be careful. This is a physical game.

“We have to look at equipment. We have to look at different things maybe we changed, just to make sure that we’re going in the right direction. But I feel we have to be careful we don’t overreact.”

Lamoriello spoke about the forces created by bigger, stronger athletes playing a faster game with no red line and no obstruction, while wearing harder shoulder and elbow pads. But he also referenced how hockey had evolved over the years to deal with other dangers, and he said the league needs to take more time to evaluate the effect of Rule 48.

“When you have speed and players getting bigger and bigger every year, because of training 12 months a year, something’s going to happen,” Lamoriello said. “Now it’s trying to minimize what’s going to happen and also getting the players to have more respect for each other, and that’s what they’re trying to do – take out the blindsides. …

“I think the rule in there is the right rule. It’s going to be reinforced, and players who take that liberty are going to have to pay the price. We go back over the years, there were players who were notorious for leg checks, leg injuries. We had great players hurt. I can think of a couple on top of my mind, Hall of Fame players. That was a problem in those days. So we’ve got to be very careful.”

THIRD PERIOD

Don Fehr made the rounds, talking to players and agents alike, as he took over the NHLPA.
(Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Before he officially became the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, Don Fehr traveled to meet the players team by team – to educate and unify what had been a fractured union, to make sure he had a mandate from the membership.

Now he is conducting regional meetings with small groups of agents, including them in the process as he settles into the job and prepares for collective bargaining. Agent Rick Curran declined to share details from the meeting he attended, but said the forum allowed for give and take.

“From a personal standpoint, I was impressed with his approach,” Curran said. “I was certainly left with the impression that he … recognizes the value of the input that is available to him from the agent part of the game. … So we at least have the comfort level to know that if we have a contribution to make, that he recognizes that.

“I’m not naive to think that whatever we suggest or say and do, he’s just going to run out and do it. But he’s certainly willing to listen, which is a different approach than what we’ve experienced in the past.”

Fehr also is assembling his staff. Among the additions the union announced this week was Richard Rodier as a lawyer and economic consultant. Rodier has been described as a thorn in the side of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for his role in BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie’s three failed attempts to buy an NHL team.

OVERTIME

Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1.
(Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Lost in the Evgeni Nabokov(notes) saga is the Detroit Red Wings’ long-term outlook in goal.

The Wings signed Nabokov to a one-year contract – only to lose him on waivers to the New York Islanders, who have suspended him for not reporting. The Wings did it ostensibly because he was cheap, solid insurance with backup Chris Osgood(notes) recovering from a groin injury.

But the Wings have a history of acquiring veteran players for the short term, then watching those players thrive and stay. And Osgood and starter Jimmy Howard(notes) both are slated to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.

Acquiring Nabokov could have given the Wings a chance to evaluate for the future, too. The fact that they got him to sign, even though they didn’t get him, still might serve as a subtle reminder that there is value in playing for a strong, deep team.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Howard, who spent a long apprenticeship in the minors and makes a salary of $716,667 this season, according to capgeek.com. He turns 27 on March 26 and is at a point where he might want to cash in.

Detroit general manager Ken Holland, who started the trend of spending a relatively small percentage of salary cap dollars on goaltending, has not spoken much yet to Howard’s agents.

“We’d like to keep Jimmy,” Holland said. “We’ve had some very brief conversations going a ways back. Ultimately, when a player is an unrestricted free agent, it’s their opportunity to see what their value is on the open market.

“He’s going to be 27 years of age. He’s in the prime of his career. Obviously people have seen what our philosophy has been in building … now, we understand we have to put more into goal than we have. So we’ll see.

“It’s late January. Free agency begins July 1. I’m sure we’ll have conversations before July 1 comes and goes.”

SHOOTOUT

The Kings face a tough schedule as they try to climb back into the playoff race.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Kings need someone to make plays alongside No. 1 center Anze Kopitar(notes), and general manager Dean Lombardi will continue to look around the league leading up to the Feb. 28 trade deadline. But keep an eye on Andrei Loktionov(notes), a 2008 fifth-round pick up from the minors. He’s a natural center, but has been on Kopitar’s left wing lately. One scout said he has the potential to be special.

I keep thinking the Kings are going to make the playoffs, because entering the season I thought they not only would make it, but might make some noise. They’re only one point out entering the all-star break. But they’re 11th in the West, one of five teams in a three-point clump from seventh to 12th. They play 10 straight road games after the break, because Staples Center is booked, and they’re 10-13-0 on the road. Going to be tough.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, on the other hand, play 10 straight home games after the break. The Bolts – whose last two games before the break were at home, too – are 16-4-2 at home.

It’s exciting with the standings so tight, but it’s going to be all the more heartbreaking for some teams in the end. Take the Calgary Flames, who have battled back into the race. They have won four straight. They have gone 6-1-1 in their past eight. They’re suddenly only two points out of a playoff spot entering the break. Still, they aren’t as close as it seems. They sit in 12th and have played 51 games, more than each of the five teams in front of them. They’re tied for the league lead with six shootout victories, which don’t count when wins are used as the first tiebreaker.

With coach Cory Clouston going down with the ship, the final 32 games are going feel awfully long for the sinking Ottawa Senators. But it could be worse. At least they have the silver lining of a lottery pick in their future – unlike the Toronto Maple Leafs, who can’t bottom out and rebuild because they gave two first-rounders to the Boston Bruins in the Phil Kessel(notes) deal and don’t want to hand a division rival a second straight lottery pick.

When Wings center Mike Modano(notes) suffered a severed tendon and nerve damage in his right arm in November, there were fears about the feeling returning to his hand and concerns about conditioning. The best-case scenario was supposed to be a comeback in March. Now Modano is already skating with his teammates again, those fears and concerns have subsided, and he’s shooting for the end of February. “I’m coming along,” Modano said. “The legs and conditioning feel much better than I ever thought it would be. We’ve been pushing it pretty hard off the ice.”

Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) has never played fantasy hockey. He has never played fantasy football. But it won’t be a completely new experience for him Friday when he serves as a captain and drafts his team for Sunday’s All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C. He has been part of pools for the Masters, NCAA tournament and NFL playoffs. He even won an NFL playoff pool once.

Lidstrom said he could relate to the players in the draft, going back to the pickup games of his childhood in Sweden. “I wasn’t always picking, and I wasn’t always the first getting picked, either,” Lidstrom laughed. Come on. Really? “I was playing with older kids, so that might have something to do with it,” Lidstrom said, smiling.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jan 27, 2011