By Sean Hartnett
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When an NHL player is able to score at a point-per-game rate, he’s pretty special. Ilya Kovalchuk has always been a rarity: he’s capable of going beyond what’s considered special and can fully dominate opponents.
The visiting Islanders saw first hand just how effectively Kovalchuk can take over a game and probably were left seeing double by the time the third period ended. Ilya was everywhere on the Prudential Center ice. With a bit more luck, he could have done even more damage to Islanders’ net than the hat-trick he registered on Thursday night.
Linemate Zach Parise has played with plenty of highly-skilled players both with the Devils and at international level with Team USA. When I chatted with Zach postgame, he revealed to me that there isn’t another teammate he’s played with who is more gifted offensively than Kovalchuk.
“I would say he’s offensively the most talented player that I’ve ever played with,” Parise stated. “Some of the stuff he does is awesome. There’s not a lot of guys that have the ability to go end-to-end anymore. He still can do that,” he explained.
Parise continued, “I think you can really tell when he has the puck and there’s four or five guys on the opposing team that turn to look at him. He just brings that kind of attention to himself which is good for his linemates too as he opens things up.”
It’s very difficult to pick out a fault in Kovalchuk’s game. Wonderful on-ice vision, deft stick-handling, a rocket of a shot, pure skating ability, strength along the boards and an underrated ability to throw strong checks.
Unfortunately for Kovalchuk, the Devils went through a period of transition both on their playing roster and coaching staff last season. He wasn’t given the consistent platform needed to truly produce his best play but this season, it’s a totally different story.
Kovalchuk’s individual skills are certainly dazzling but his playmaking talents have allowed his line with Parise and rookie Adam Henrique to become one of the most formidable around the NHL. Parise spoke about Kovalchuk’s ability to keep his linemates on the same page.
“He does a really good job of being supportive. Your linemates aren’t always going to make the right plays. I think our line does a good job of letting each other know in a positive way,” Parise explained.
I asked Devils’ head coach Peter DeBoer about the benefit Henrique receives by playing alongside two experienced stars in their prime. DeBoer responded, “He’s a lucky kid, jumping into the league your first year and have two of the top 5 forwards in the world on your wings. It’s a great opportunity and to his credit, he’s making the most of it.”
He continued, “He’s an unflappable kid. He’s not intimated by the circumstance or situation.”
Parise made similar statements about Henrique’s development. “He’s done a really good job. There is some pressure when you play with a guy like that, especially when you’re 21-years-old. A lot comes with the responsibility,” Parise mentioned.
It’s no coincidence that Henrique is leading all NHL rookies with 45 points and is enjoying a breakthrough rookie season. I spoke to Henrique about the influence of Kovalchuk and Parise on his blossoming career.
“He’s one of the best players in the league. To be able to play with him and learn from him and Zach, it’s more than I can ask for coming in. Zach’s obviously a leader in the room. He works so hard, his work ethic is unbelievable. It’s something I’ve tried to put in my game a little more throughout the year,” Henrique explained.
“Their play on the ice has helped me out tremendously. Any time you can have those two guys on your line, it makes things easier for me on the ice. They created so much offensively,” Henrique concluded.
Whether it’s Henrique or any young player inside they Devils’ locker room, having two teammates as talented and experienced as Kovalchuk and Parise is a huge advantage. Henrique appears to be on his way to becoming a special player in his own right and could be on track to win the Calder Trophy.
What do you make of Kovalchuk’s sensational night? How does the Parise-Henrique-Kovalchuk line rank among top NHL lines? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.