Chico had pointed it out yesterday at multiple times yesterday, talking about how Ilya Kovalchuk has never played any better than he is right now. It really got me thinking. The light originally went on in my head back when he scored shorthanded on a breakaway at Winnipeg. Playing on the kill, waiting for the right time to go and steal the puck is pretty much what was the polar opposite we had expected when we traded for him. Now, plays like that are a huge reason this team is having the season they are having.
I don't know how the advanced stats look, but clearly to the naked eye he's doing the little things at the right times. His positioning has been putting him in much better positions to make plays and he has turned into somewhat of a distributor. Think of the times when he gains the zone before coming to a stop and just waiting to feed a cutter. Or the Rangers game this week where with three minutes to go on two 2-on-1's he sends the pass across rather than take the shot (regardless if it might have been a better idea to shoot). He's fully buying into the team concept. A lot has to be said about Debow getting him to buy in, and it evens extends from Lemaire, part II.
Kovalchuk has a ton of haters, for reasons I will never understand but you cannot deny the way he has been playing lately.
I don't think Kovy really had a ton of haters. I think he had a lot of doubters for a while. Deep down, anyone who's a true Devils fan wants him to succeed...it's pretty counterproductive to want him to suck.
Anyway, here's how I see Kovy's "evolution" process.
1) The trade: impossible to argue. Devils didn't give up a whole hell of a lot...not nearly as much as experts were predicting the Thrashers would get in return. They couldn't pass up that chance.
2) After the trade: put up solid numbers, but didn't seem like a great fit. It was a limited sample, but based on his Devils' body of work, I thought it was risky to sign him to a big deal (which at the time meant 7-8 years to me). Once I saw what he finally signed for, I'll be the first to admit I was like "WTF?!" Kovy's playing great now, but that is STILL an insane deal by any standards. And the whole getting-Kovy-signed process, which came off as flat-out annoying at times, made some Devils fans cool towards Kovy right then, at least initially. Hard to say how much of that process was really Kovy's fault, but it did make it hard to warm up to him initially for some. The penalities doled out for Lou attempting to circumvent the CBA didn't help either.
3) First full season: team's slow start and Kovy's slow start made it easy to point the finger at him...he wasn't playing nearly as well as expected, and though he had plenty of company in that regard, in ways it felt like the Devils had truly lost their way, from Lou doing something he had never done before in signing a star player to an all-time deal, to his acquisitions of yet more ex-Devils that weren't nearly as effective the second time around. Once Lemaire replaced MacLean, Kovy clearly allowed Lemaire to tinker with the weaknesses in Kovy's game, and to Kovy's credit, he clearly seemed committed to becoming a better player. But even with a stronger second half, he still didn't seem entirely comfortable, and something just seemed to be missing. His numbers were decent, given his bad start, but he was still a -28, and it felt like he might never live up to the superstar status of his contract...not in a Devils uniform, anyway.
4) Second full season: still prone to "WTF?!" brainfart moments (especially early), and after still looking uncomfortable (partly to playing out of position), finally found some chemistry. He seems to be being truer to himself, like a Kovy 1.5...he'll make his mistakes from time-to-time (I think Lemaire was trying to eliminate these entirely, and I think Kovy was trying his best to become what Lemaire envisioned, but I also think it was probably too much for Kovy to try to take in, at least all at once). But what I see now is Kovy being Kovy, with some of his refinements sprinkled in, and let's face it, yes, he'll do some head-scratching things now and then, but when he's putting up 80-90 points and playing with a ton of emotion, those head-scratchers are much easier to take than when he's putting up 61 points.
And all of this couldn't come at a better time, really...because even though it's Zach who wears the "C", it is really starting to feel like, slowly but surely, this is starting to become Kovy's team, and Kovy's actions not only seem like he knows this, but welcomes it as well. As far as Year 2 goes into a mega-deal like Kovy's, considering how things started, it really can't be going much better for him right now.