Ilya Kovalchuk has never been known for defense.
Over his ten year career, Kovalchuk has finished with a positive plus/minus rating just once - the 2009-10 season, when he posted a plus-10 rating while playing between the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils. His career plus/minus is a minus-111, displaying his inability to provide any help defensively.
Kovalchuk has once again posted a minus rating this season, carrying a minus-10 through 38 games. But that doesn't tell the whole story. The left-winger has rededicated himself to playing in his own zone, and he's becoming - gasp! - a decent two-way player.
Need proof? Look no further than Kovalchuk's regular minutes on the penalty kill. Coach Peter DeBoer has trusted the left-winger to play with the team shorthanded, and he's rewarded him. Last night, Kovalchuk scored a shorthanded goal - his second of the season - which matches a career high. He's also collected a shorthanded assist, setting a career-high with three shorthanded points.
A look at some advanced stats further prove his commitment to defense. When the team is shorthanded, Kovalchuk has a minus-40.51 Corsi rating. That doesn't sound great, but consider that, while on the powerplay, teams won't generate much offense while facing a barrage of shots. That number is far better than the ratings of Elias (minus-60.19) and Parise (minus-63.58), two players who are ranked among the top penalty killers on the team.
Kovalchuk isn't just playing great defense on the penalty kill. He's carried over his solid special teams performance to even strength play. He's contributed a 0.1 defensive goals versus threshold - ranking fourth overall among all Devils skaters. That stat isn't eye popping, but it does show his commitment to showing effort in his own zone.
Will Kovalchuk earn any Selke Trophy nominations? Not at all. There shouldn't be the expectation that he will blossom into one of the best defensive forwards in the league. His commitment to playing better defense shows Kovalchuk's willingness to buy into the Devils system, one that requires every player to give effort in all three zones. While he'll never be John Madden, Kovalchuk has shown a willingness to compete in the defensively, quietly adding one more skill to his already large repertoire.