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Campbell's Cuts: Finding a home for Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk has only 11 goals in 37 games this season. (Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

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Ilya Kovalchuk has only 11 goals in 37 games this season. (Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

After watching Ilya Kovalchuk fail to score a goal in his ninth straight game Tuesday night, Atlanta Thrashers coach John Anderson finally acknowledged the obvious.

“I think I’ve got to seriously look at changing these lines,” Anderson said after Kovalchuk registered three shots and no goals in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I have to think it’s not because of a lack of ice time because he’s certainly getting ice time…we need his scoring and outside the (Bryan) Little line, we need some consistent scoring."

Anderson is right about Kovalchuk to a point when it comes to ice time. Against the Leafs, he led all Thrasher forwards in both even strength and power play ice time. In fact, his 17:19 at even strength was almost three minutes more than the next highest player on the team.

But it’s not the minutes, it’s the quality of linemates with whom Kovalchuk is spending those minutes. For more than a month now, he has been on the left side of a line with Marty Reasoner at center and Chris Thorburn on the right side.

My goodness, Marty Reasoner and Chris Thorburn? Without disparaging Messrs. Reasoner and Thorburn, they would be fourth-liners on about 20 other teams in the NHL. In order to be effective, Kovalchuk needs players who can get the puck to him and Reasoner and Thorburn are not those kinds of players. Hard workers? Yup. Good guys? Probably. Worthy linemates for Ilya Kovalchuk? Not a chance.

To his credit, Kovalchuk doesn’t deflect attention away from his part in the scoring drought, which is the longest of his career. And the problem for the Thrashers is that they have exactly one line – Todd White between Slava Kozlov and Little – that is producing any type of offense. So Anderson is faced with one of two prospects – break up a line that has been playing well or put Kovalchuk with different fourth-line plodders than the ones with whom he’s currently playing.

(An interesting aside: the White line has recently been dubbed The Kahlua Line, because it’s a Little White Russian.)

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Kovalchuk said. “I’m going to keep trying and hopefully one is going to go in and everything will be the same.”

Kovalchuk has a lot of catching up to do if anything like that is going to happen. With 11 goals in 37 games, he’s on pace for just 24 goals this season. Even worse, he has taken just 105 shots this season, which puts him on pace for just 233, which would be his lowest total in five seasons and 50 fewer than he took last season when he scored 52 goals.

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And it’s not as though Kovalchuk has gone completely dry. Since teaming up with Reasoner and Thorburn Dec. 2, Kovalchuk has 3-12-15 totals in 14 games and is on pace for a career-high 55 assists. But the Thrashers aren’t paying Kovalchuk $7.5 million a year to dish the puck off.

“Yeah, I know,” Kovalchuk said when it was pointed out to him that his shots are way down this season, “but when your partner is in a better position, you try to give him the puck.”

On the power play that’s usually Ron Hainsey or either Tobias Enstrom or Mathieu Schneider, which is not a bad option for him. But at even strength, he’s wasting his time getting the puck to his current linemates. The only problem is that the Thrashers are so bereft of offensive talent that there are precious few players who have the skills to play with Kovalchuk.

Which brings us to Kovalchuk’s future. He has never asked for a trade and GM Don Waddell has publicly stated he has no intention of trading Kovalchuk. The speculation is, though, that while he won’t be dealt before the trade deadline March 4, he’ll almost certainly be traded this summer when the Thrashers come to the undeniable conclusion that Kovalchuk won’t re-sign with them when his contract expires after the 2009-10 season.

It’s clear from his time in Atlanta that Kovalchuk is not suited to being the player to carry a team. He’s the kind of player who thrives on having good players around him and there’s no chance of that happening in Atlanta in the foreseeable future.

ANDY’S DANDY COMEBACK
Anderson had a humorous response when asked about the phantom interference penalty called against Tobias Enstrom with 8.1 seconds left in the third period that led to the Leafs overtime goal.

“I don’t even know what a penalty is anymore,” Anderson said. “We shoot ourselves in the foot enough, we don’t need any help.”

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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