Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, and The Move to Right Wing

Last week I was inspired to delve more deeply into the history and success of Kovalchuk’s move to the right wing to answer the question of what we might reasonably expect out of Ovechkin going through a similar process. There are more similarities than differences with the two players, from a cultural and positional perspective as well as how closely aligned their roles are for their respective teams. They are expected to score.

I quickly came to several conclusions: First and foremost that we needed to be patient. It was a slow transition for Kovalchuk, who did not find the switch easy. When he was first traded to the Devils on February 4, 2010, Jacques Lemaire kept him in his usual position only occasionally moving him to the right when shuffling lines. John MacLean, the Devils’ new coach for the first half of the 2010-11 season (9-22-2; fired Dec. 23rd) moved Kovalchuk to the right wing out of training camp, primarily because he could join left wing, Zach Parise, on the top line.

At the time MacLean said: "No great thinking,” adding however, "Zach's a left shot and Kovy's a right shot. We'll see how the chemistry is.” (Star Ledger, Sept. 18, 2010) For his part Kovalchuk said: "It was good. Sometimes (Parise) reminded me that I have to go to (the other side). That's OK. We're switching all the time." (F&I, Sept. 23, 2010) But Kovalchuk, along with the Devils, struggled. He wasn’t comfortable in his new position and resisted the change. So when Parise went down with a knee injury for the season, Kovalchuk moved back to the left to take Parise’s spot.

After Lemaire returned as the interim coach (and they went on their remarkable run just missing the 2010-11 playoffs), Kovalchuk remained on the left. However, when the Devils hired Peter DeBoer for the 2011-12 season, Kovalchuk’s new coach, his third in a year, moved him to the right wing with Parise on the left and the rookie Adam Henrique as center. (F&I, Nov. 2 and Nov. 4, 2011) This time the rationale was as much to re-ignite Kovalchuk’s game (much like now with Ovechkin) as it was to get him on the same line as Parise.

Kovalchuk was hesitant about the idea when asked, stating on the day of his physical: “I think there were enough experiments last year.” (F&I, Nov. 2, 2011; NYP, Dec. 12, 2011) But later when pressed by DeBoer to make the switch he explained: “When the team wasn’t doing do well, and I was struggling, [DeBoer] asked me if I wanted to try to do that. He showed me a couple of examples of how it could be better for me and for the team.” (NYP, Dec. 12, 2011)

It was not until December before Kovalchuk had grown comfortable in his new spot. Of his difficulties Kovalchuk explained in a lengthy Post piece (NYP, Dec. 12, 2011): “You were told to play right wing and you never played there. You think it’s easy, but it’s not. It takes a lot of adjustment, especially in your own zone. It takes a lot of time this year, too. Now it seems like normal, especially playing with Zach. It was an easy adjustment this year.”

According to Kovalchuk it had to do with the different approaches by the two coaches. DeBoer gained his trust. He talked to him, explained his expectations, and showed him video as illustration of his words; MacLean didn’t. “When you talk to the coaches and communicate with them, it’s one thing. When you don’t, it’s another thing,” Kovalchuk said. “It was a tough adjustment.” (NYP, Dec. 12, 2011)

Prior to joining the Devils, Kovalchuk had been moved to the right wing only intermittently in his long career. When MacLean did it in the preseason, Kovalchuk’s former Atlanta Thrashers coach, Bob Hartley, stated that he had tried it out on occasion but Kovalchuk was extremely reluctant. “It’s all about chemistry and how they’re going to fit together,” Hartley said. “But I know one thing, Kovy is much more comfortable entering the offensive zone on the left side. He feels that he sees the ice better and that he can walk in and blast it. He’s much more natural there.” (Custance, Sporting News, Sept. 24, 2010)

The common thread to how the Devils used Kovalchuk appears to be Adam Oates, stemming from his first season as an assistant coach, specializing in the power play, to Rick Tocchet of Tampa Bay in 2009-10. He reportedly made a similar suggestion to Tocchet regarding St. Louis who was another winger playing on his off-side and who now plays on the left despite still being identified in the NHL as a right wing. (I haven’t found any contemporaneous accounts of St. Louis’ switch and how he felt about it).

Oates went to the Devils the next season (the new Tampa Bay Lightning ownership fired all of the coaches) and managed to survive all of the Devils coaching changes—MacLean to Lemaire to DeBoer. He spearheaded the power play (great results with Tampa Bay but mixed with the Devils) and continued to make suggestions for player improvements, such as the angle of their blades and his belief that players should play on their on-side wing.

Damien Cox in his piece, “Behind the Trouble with Kovy” (The Spin, Nov. 3, 2010) appears to be the first to link Oates to this philosophy and his impact on the teams. His piece, managing to be both snarky and perceptive, seems to be the primary source for much of the later media identification of Oates as instigator.

If you want to know what started all the trouble with Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey, it apparently all relates to Martin St. Louis in a connect-the-dots, six-degrees-of-separation kind of way.

Last season in Tampa, Adam Oates joined the Lightning staff and convinced management and head coach Rick Tocchet that after years of playing right wing - his off wing - St. Louis needed to be shifted to the left side. That's no small thing for a star player like St. Louis.

In the paragraph that is quoted most often, he described Oates’ rationale thusly:

Oates' theory, that he backs up with videotape evidence, is that left-handed players need to play on the left side and right-handed players on the right side because it's more important than ever in the faster, modern NHL that wingers be moving north-south with the puck, rather than cutting into the middle of the ice as many players who skate on their off-wing are prone to do.

Commentators, recently for example Justin Bourne (Backhand Shelf, Jan. 15, 2013), have suggested that wingers should not have such difficulty in switching sides, that it should not be such a big deal. (See also ILWT, Jan. 23, 2013) Aside from the more obvious answer that some players are simply more adaptable than others, no matter what position they play, Cox also pointed out the impact of their cultural differences, using words that could just as easily describe Ovechkin: “He comes from a Russian hockey culture in which it is common for wingers to play their off wings, and years of successful sniping in Atlanta left him convinced that's where he had to be.”

That Oates is the key as suggested by Cox is borne out by Kovalchuk’s experience with the Devils. Although Lemaire, during the short period after Kovalchuk’s trade, occasionally put him on the right (Oates was with Tampa Bay), the move was not systematically tried until the advent of the MacLean and DeBoer eras with Oates as assistant. Lemaire, upon his return, kept Kovalchuk on the left where he had been since Parise was still injured.

Early reports during the MacLean period attributed the reasoning to the Devils’ depth at left wing (Kovalchuk slotted in behind Parise), despite MacLean stating, in words that echoed Oates’, that he was putting the two wingers in their positions based upon whether they were a left or right hand shooter (Star Ledger, Sept. 18, 2010). Interestingly, when DeBoer arrived as head coach for the 2011-12 season he had no intention of moving Kovalchuk from his usual left wing position (F&I, Aug. 31 and Oct. 29, 2011), choosing instead to try out Parise at center to start the season before shifting Kovalchuk to the right by November.

DeBoer recently credited Oates, at first with a joke—“He’s stealing our ideas.” But added: “Moving Kovy was partially his idea too. A big part of it was his idea” (F&I, Jan. 24, 2013). He described further the Devils' coaching system when Oates was his assistant: “How we play is a combination of all the coaches that we had here last year. We tweaked things throughout the year based on different opinions – whether it was Larry (Robinson) or Oatsie or Dave Barr and what we ended up with worked. So, I anticipate we’ll see a lot of similar things.”

By January 2012 DeBoer had Kovalchuk regularly killing penalties. (Star Ledger, Jan. 19, 2012) “I think penalty killing is about a defense-first mentality," DeBoer said. "You have no choice but to think that way when you're out in that situation and I think it definitely helps [Kovalchuk] with other parts of his game.” He explained further: “I think it gives him a little different perspective on the game than the other 50 minutes of the game that he used to [be] watching or playing….”

I am not sure whether Oates was the source for the idea of using Kovalchuk on the penalty kill or whether he and DeBoer were in mutual agreement about its importance in developing the star player’s defensive acumen. But I suspect the latter, that they were of like minds. Nevertheless, Kovalchuk has become effective at it, especially regarding short-handed goals. (Star Ledger, Jan. 19, 2012)

Given Oates’ own learning experience as a coach under DeBoer as well as his words of intent at the beginning of his season with the Capitals, I believe it is a matter of time for Ovechkin as a penalty killer. Kovalchuk was not used much on the penalty kill until he had become comfortable in his new position on the right. And in the process Kovalchuk has become a well-rounded player and has been used more effectively by the team. (Just a few of the excellent ILWT analyses, Dec. 5, 2010; Feb. 4, 2011; Aug. 7, 2011; and Feb. 8, 2012)

As far as DeBoer is concerned, however, he feels that he can safely play Kovalchuk in any game situation: "This guy has made a commitment to a lot of different areas, changing positions, playing a 200-foot game, playing in his own end, killing penalties and he's getting rewards for that now, like we told him he would.” (ESPN, May 28, 2012)

Now comfortable in his expanded role, Kovalchuk recently advised: “At first, it’s a little different,” adding, “I’m pretty sure it will take a little time for (Ovechkin) to adjust, but it doesn’t really matter. He ends up on the left side any way in the offensive zone. That’s what you’ve got to understand and just try to do it.” (F&I, Jan. 24, 2013)

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