Heading into the 2001-02 NHL season, Thrasher fans had two reasons to be both excited and concerned. Those two reasons were Dany Heatley (#2 in 2000 NHL draft) and Ilya Kovalchuk (#1 in 2001). Both were highly touted by scouts and management as potential superstar caliber players. For an offensively challenged team like Atlanta this was welcome news. On the other hand, fans had reasons to be concerned about each player’s development. The club’s other first round pick Patrick Stefan (#1 overall in 1999) had shown limited offensive flair in his first two injury plagued seasons. Some wondered whether the 18 year-old Kovalchuk might be better off returning to Spartak for another year before submitting himself to the rigors of a NHL season. In addition, Thrasher’s GM Don Waddell tried to keep expectations low by saying that each would need to work hard to score 20 goals in his rookie season.
Fast-forward forty-one NHL games later and it is clear that the club made the right decision to play both of these top prospects this year. Both players lead the NHL rookie scoring race and were named co-rookies of the month for December. Heatley (16-18-34) and Kovalchuk (17-16-33) also lead the team in scoring by a considerable margin, given the slow start of veterans Ferraro and Hrkac. The two rookies have produced have produced 34% of the team’s goals at the halfway point. Even more impressive is the fact that their numbers put them in the company of established star players such as Elias, Fedorov, Hossa, Nolan and Guerin. GM Waddell and Coach Fraser have repeatedly stated that the two have exceeded their expectations. In fact, Waddell noted that the team’s poor record this year is not a product of the team’s youth, but the sub-par play by its veterans.
Another healthy turn is the emerging friendship between the team’s two young stars. Despite their different backgrounds, the two players hit it off during their first meeting at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and have frequently roomed together on the road. The off-ice chemistry has translated into great on ice chemistry as the pair often look to use each other in games (they usually play on the same line). In fact, this trend became so pronounced that Coach Fraser has split them up so that they will begin to use their other teammates. GM Don Waddell half-joking noted that Kovalchuk only passes to players who wear the number 15 (Heatley’s number).
Not everything has gone perfectly this season. One source of concern is the defensive play of both young forwards, both of whom are -11 so far this season. On the one hand, poor plus/minus ratings are very common on expansion teams and can be misleading. In fact, most of the damage to each player’s plus/minus rating occurred during the Thrasher’s disastrous 7 game road trip in November, when the team was outscored 32 to 7. Aside from that road trip, Kovalchuk is -4 (with 17-15-32 in 33 GP) and Heatley is -3 (with 14-17-31 in 34 GP). On the other hand, both players could improve their defense. Kovalchuk in particular does a poor job covering his point man and clearing the puck. (GIVEAWAYS) This lack of attention to rudimentary defensive hockey resulted in Kovalchuk being benched for a game early in the season so that, according to Coach Fraser, he could watch how other players handle those defensive situations. Since then Kovalchuk has been more consistent about staying in the neighborhood of his point man, but he still fails to clear the puck on a regular basis. In contrast, the defensive zone is one area where Heatley’s game is significantly better than Kovalchuk’s. He has played an occasional shift on the penalty kill.
Despite their nearly identical numbers, both players have striking differences in their overall games. As mentioned above Heatley clearly has the better all around game. Heatley’s strengths so far have been his quick shot, his ability to pounce on loose pucks and his willingness to crash the net. Because of his average skating ability, Heatley must either make a good move to get open or rely upon teammates to pass him the puck in scoring situations. Another asset is Heatley’s ability to play center if necessary (he played the position during his last year at Wisconsin after Reinprecht signed with the Kings) which allows him to take faceoffs if the centerman gets thrown out. Coach Fraser has also played Heatley at the point on the power play because of his vision, shot and passing skills.
In contrast, Kovalchuk’s game consists of two things, raw speed and a cannon of a shot. Kovalchuk has that rare ability to flat out blow it by a NHL goalie. He has scored a number of goals this season where the goaltender had a clear view but simply couldn’t react in time to stop the shot. He also has the speed to go wide on a defenseman and drive to the front of the net. At this point, he scores almost all of his goals two ways; a one-timer from the near the boards, or a wrister on a breakaway or odd man rush.
Of the two rookies, Kovalchuk’s development has been the most obvious. At the start of the season his play was exciting and wild at times. In his first preseason games Kovalchuk kept going deep into his own defensive end to gain control of the puck even when the two defensemen had things under control. He would then start out from behind his own goal and try to go end-to-end no matter how many opposition players he had to go around. Another early habit of Kovalchuk was his tendency to try beat three or four opposition players when the rest of his line went for a line change. Ilya was very exciting to watch because you always knew he would try something with it whether it was wise or not. GM Waddell has said that one thing that sets him apart is his intense desire to have the puck and score. Waddell recounted how when scouting Kovalchuk in Russia, he witnessed a game in which Ilya went back into his own zone and stripped his own defenseman of the puck, when he failed to pass it to him, and skated down the ice. So far this season, Kovalchuk has learned to wait for his defensemen to pass him the puck, and that it is OK to just dump the puck in deep and go for a line change.
Finally, although he is technically no longer a prospect after two NHL seasons, it is worth noting that the arrival of the two top picks this year appears to have stimulated Patrick Stefan. Since his return from a conditioning assignment in Chicago, Stefan has split the job of centering the “kid” line with Captain Ray Ferraro. Thus far, Stefan has shown an enthusiasm and intensity that was simply lacking in his first two season.