The last few weeks, we’ve featured matchups between Swedes (the Sedin twins), Predator teammates (Ryan Suter and Shea Weber), Canadians (Steven Stamkos and John Tavares), and Americans (Bobby Ryan and Phil Kessel). Now, it’s time to compare two of the top Russian players in the game- Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, and Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils.
These two players are certainly comparable. Both are Russian (as we’ve already established) and have represented their home country in the Olympic Games, both play left wing, and both were taken #1 overall in the draft (Atlanta took Kovalchuk first in 2001, Washington selected Ovechkin with the top pick in 2004). And, for the gamers out there, both Kovalchuk and Ovechkin were given 99 overall ratings in EA Sports NHL 2012 video game. But, let’s break it down and decide: who’s the better player? Ilya Kovalchuk, or Alexander Ovechkin?
The Case for Alexander Ovechkin
Ovechkin has the hardware. During his seven years in the NHL, “The Great 8” has won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie (2006), twice been awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player (2008, 2009); he’s won three (2008, 2009, 2010) Lester B. Pearson/Ted Lindsay Awards, given the to the individual who is voted by his fellow players as the best in the NHL; and Ovechkin has also won a host of scoring titles, claiming the Maurice Richard Trophy in 2008 and 2009 as the NHL’s top goal scorer, while also winning the Art Ross Trophy in 2008 as the player with the most total points. With the exception of the 2010-11 season, Ovechkin has put up at least 46 goals every year he’s been in the NHL, highlighted by his 65-goal 2007-08 campaign. Ovechkin is also a great two-way player; to go along with his offensive prowess, he has a penchant for good defense and big hits:
Since this is also a comparison of Russian players, it’s also important to note that Ovechkin has won five Kharlamov Trophies, awarded to the best Russian-born NHL player, as voted by all Russian NHL players. All of Ovechkin’s Kharlamov Trophies came in a five-year streak from 2006-10. For his career (as of this writing on February 15th, 2012), Ovechkin has 324 goals, 334 assists, and 658 total points, to go along with a +82 plus/minus rating in 528 career games. 53 of his career goals have been game-winners as well.
The Case for Ilya Kovalchuk
Kovalchuk has been a model of consistency throughout his career. Despite being mired on a bad team in Atlanta for the first seven-and-a-half years of his career, a squad that made the playoffs once during his tenure before he was traded to New Jersey in 2009, Kovalchuk managed to put up at least 41 goals in five straight seasons from 2004-09, including 52 in 2006, earning Kovalchuk the Maurice Richard Trophy. Kovalchuk has also won one Kharlamov Trophy, with that honor coming in 2004. His current season also far outstrips Ovechkin’s: through 51 games this year, Kovalchuk has 25 goals, 31 assists for 56 points. Compare that to Ovechkin’s current totals of 23 goals, 21 assists and 44 points through 53 games. For his career, a span of 753 games, Kovalchuk has 394 goals, 364 assists, and 758 total points, as well as a career -108 rating. Like Ovechkin, 53 of his career goals have been game winners.
The Case Against Ovechkin
Currently, Ovechkin is having the worst two seasons of his career. In 2010-11, he finished with a very respectable 32 goals, 53 assists and 85 points, but those totals were the lowest of his career. This year, he has only 23 goals, 21 assists and 44 points. Considering that Ovechkin was once a player who used to put up 100+ points per season on a regular basis, and has scored 50+ goals in all but two years of his career, one has to wonder if opponents have figured out how to stymie Ovechkin, and he’s just not good enough to adapt, evolve and find new ways to produce the way his old self could.
The Case Against Kovalchuk
Simply put, his numerical and awards totals cannot even begin to compare with Ovechkin’s. He’s played almost 200 more games than his countryman, but Kovalchuk has only 100 more points than Ovechkin. Kovalchuk’s career points-per-game average (1.01) is not as good as Ovechkin’s (1.25). Ovechkin’s best season (65g-47a-112p) is better than Kovalchuk’s (52g-46a-98p). Despite the fact that 2010-11 was Ovechkin’s worst, in terms of numbers, Kovalchuk’s 31 goal, 29 assist, 60 point campaign was still worse than Ovechkin’s 32 goal, 53 assist, 85 point campaign. And possibly the most glaring statistic may be Kovalchuk’s abysmal -108 rating. Despite all his goals, he’s been on the ice for 108 more goals by opponents than his own team; not a great advertisement of Kovalchuk’s defensive abilities.
There’s no doubt that these are two elite players. But while Ovechkin’s last season and a half have been the worst of his career, his totals over that span (55g, 74a, 129p) are still better than Kovalchuk’s (56g, 60a, 116p). Although Kovalchuk may be on his way to one of his best season ever this year, and while he’s certainly having a better 2011-12 season than Ovechkin, the present should not cloud the past. Alexander Ovechkin is still superior to Ilya Kovalchuk. Ovechkin’s personal accolades, myriad trophies and superior numbers put him ahead of Kovalchuk….at least for now. If Ovechkin cannot pull himself from his current slump, and if Kovalchuk continues to thrive and improve in New Jersey, perhaps in ten years there will be a different verdict. But for the time being, Ovechkin is the winner.
Winner: Alexander Ovechkin
And now, for your entertainment, here is a collection of highlights from both players. Enjoy.
Ovechkin scores on his back
Kovalchuk owns Joe Corvo and scores
Ovechkin spins through Montreal
Kovalchuk scorches his former team
By lead columnist Arun Morace