- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ilya Kovalchuk is not a right winger.
But with the Petr Sykora-Patrik Elias-Dainius Zubrus line showing great chemistry and Travis Zajac still out as he tries to recover from a torn Achilles’, Kovalchuk has been forced into a less comfortable role.
The Russian sniper missed five games recently with a groin injury, but has been nearly a point-a-game player for the Devils in 2011-12 (three goals, seven assists in 13 games).
Still, he isn’t as effective on the right wing as he is the left wing -- especially at even strength. Kovalchuk has just one 5-on-5 goal this season.
On the power-play, Kovalchuk is usually stationed on the left point or around the left circle, where they can feature his $100 million right-handed shot from the off wing.
In his return from injury on Wednesday night in Buffalo, Kovalchuk ripped a power-play wrister from the left circle that beat Jhonas Enroth for his first marker since Oct. 15 in Nashville.
For now, the Devils seem content to play Kovalchuk on the top line with Zach Parise and Adam Henrique. That trio has certainly generated chances, but hasn’t been as dominant as you’d expect.
The Devils’ best line this season without a doubt has been Sykora-Elias-Zubrus, who have combined for 16 goals and 21 assists. Coach Peter DeBoer has shown a commitment to keeping them together. He should.
Zajac is currently rehabbing in his native Winnipeg, and the Devils are hopeful he can rejoin the team before the start of the new year.
Remember, Kovalchuk was at his best last season when paired with Zajac as his pivot. Most of his production came after the All-Star break after he was a minus-29 rating in his first 48 games (14-15-29). But in his last 33 games Kovalchuk rebounded to notch 17 goals, 31 points and a plus-three.
Last season, the Devils’ anemic offense ranked last in the NHL in goals per game. This season, they rank 22nd in that category. Not bad.
If they can get Kovalchuk going, though, it could be better. A lot better.
The Devils are on a roll right now, having won six of their last eight. Obviously, it would be great if they can continue that pace, but all they really need to do is stay in the race until Zajac comes back.
At that point, they are going to be a very deep team up front -- at least on paper, anyway.
Projected line combinations:
Zach Parise-Adam Henrique-David Clarkson
Petr Sykora-Patrik Elias-Dainius Zubrus
Ilya Kovalchuk-Travis Zajac-Nick Palmieri
Mattias Tedenby-Ryan Carter-Cam Janssen
Assuming you can roll four lines as talented as these, Kovalchuk will no longer have to play 25:16 a night. Can he? Absolutely.
It just makes more sense to play him 18-20 minutes, while double-shifting him during power-plays.
Kovalchuk certainly hasn’t been a liability so far. He’s not thriving in his two-way game like he was under Jacques Lemaire, but that’s fine.
Still, Kovalchuk is one of the best players in the world when he plays on the left wing.
And the hope is he can move their sooner rather than later.
Fixing an average defense, unfortunately, isn’t as easy.
While waiting for the Giants-Eagles game, mull over these ratings:
Mark Fayne: plus-two
Andy Greene: plus-two
Bryce Salvador: minus-three
Adam Larsson: minus-four
Henrik Tallinder: minus-four
Anton Volchenkov: minus-six
18hPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald