NHL coaches extol the virtues of skating short, intense shifts, but some players don't always follow the rules—with mixed results
This is an article from the Nov. 14, 2011 issue
In the context of the 15-year, $100 million contract he signed last season, Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk is still sort of new to the neighborhood. But on a fundamental hockey level, is he overstaying his welcome?
Kovalchuk, who once tied for the league lead in goals, now ranks first in a more dubious category: shift length. He averages 60.98 seconds, the only NHL player who tops a minute. Generous power-play time modestly skews that number, but he is hardly being cheated—his average even-strength shift is 57.10 seconds, about 13 seconds longer than the average shift length for forwards in all situations. Until Kovalchuk sustained what the club called a lower-body injury late in a shootout win over the Flyers last Thursday, he ranked 10th in ice time, at 25:30 per game. Through Sunday he was the only forward in the top 48.
Like most coaches, Peter DeBoer, in his first season with New Jersey, preaches the orthodoxy of up-tempo hockey and the short shift. He is not perturbed by Kovalchuk's ice time. "We'd want to keep him at, or under, 50 seconds," DeBoer says. "An average guy should be 40 to 45. He has a little bit of a bigger engine. You've got to give him a little more leeway to stay an extra few seconds if he senses an opportunity to score."
That extra ice time has yet to produce bang for the big-ticket bucks. Kovalchuk, with just two goals, has averaged one every 140 minutes and 15 seconds, placing him 245th in goals per minute among forwards. And with seven assists, he ranks 159th among forwards in points per minute. Contrast that with Philadelphia center Claude Giroux, who's scored eight goals, or one every 33 minutes, 42 seconds. Says David Clarkson, who took Kovalchuk's spot on Zach Parise's line last Saturday against Winnipeg, "You want your best players on the ice. So the more we get him out, the better the team will be." The Devils had won five of 11 with a healthy Kovalchuk, which hardly endorses the notion.
Focus on the 60-Second Man has as much to do with his nationality as his numbers. Since the early days of notorious dawdler Alex Kovalev, now in the KHL, elite Russian forwards have tended to take their sweet time, frustrating coaches intent on smoothly rolling their lines. Among other marquee Russian forwards, all of whom get significant power-play time, two—the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (55.13 seconds) and the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin (53.95)—are in the top 10 in shift length among forwards. Ovechkin's teammate, the oft-criticized Alexander Semin (48.88), is 64th while Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk (46.68) ranks 120th.
Kovalchuk (17) lingers on the ice, while the Sharks' Thornton (19)—who takes average-length shifts—and Ovechkin (8) do as well with less
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
AVERAGE SECONDS PER SHIFT
ILYA KOVALCHUK 60.98
2 Goals, 7 Assists
JOE THORNTON 43.90
3 G Goals, 6 Assists
ALEX OVECHKIN 53.95
5 G Goals, 5 Assists
A STICKY SITUATION
Senators coach Paul MacLean thinks too many of his players are using sticks that ill suit them. "The [blade] curves are out of whack or [the shafts are] too long or too short," he says. "I tell players, 'Why don't you try cutting two inches off?' or 'Try using a straighter blade. You don't need to go top-shelf. You need to get the puck out along the wall.' " MacLean has yet to order a player to change. "But," he says, smiling, "I could be close."