Ten years after they were selected 1-2 in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Spezza continue to be the two premiere forwards to come out of that draft. Given the fact that the two players just met each other on Thursday night, I thought it would be a good time to compare the two and see what team got the better pick.
THE EARLY YEARS
Kovalchuk stepped right into the NHL as an 18 year old with the struggling Atlanta Thrashers. He combined with Dany Heatley to form the basis for the best young duo in the league, and they finished 1-2 in rookie scoring in the 2001-02 season. However, the Thrashers only managed to win 19 games that season and finished dead last in the NHL again.
Spezza, who was drafted by way of a trade, went to the Senators, who were much more established by that time and didn’t need the immediate help like the Thrashers. He did not make the club as an 18 year old and was returned to junior for another season. Then he spent most of the next season in Binghamton, playing 33 games in Ottawa his rookie year, netting 21 points, and appeared in 3 of the Senators’ 18 playoff games, chipping in a goal and an assist as a 19 year old.
While Kovalchuk adapted quiclky, putting up 28 goals in his sophomore season and then leading the league with 41 in his 3rd year, Spezza’s transition to the NHL was a slower one. Coach Jacques Martin seemed to hold Spezza back with his defense-first system but he still managed 55 points in 78 games. However, despite being the club’s 4th leading scorer (and top scoring centre), Martin made him a healthy scratch for the first 4 games of the eventual 7 game loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
MAKING THEIR MARKS
After the lockout is when both players came into their own. Spezza was coming off an MVP season in the AHL, and Kovalchuk
played in the Russian Super League with Ak-Bars Kazan.
After the NHL returned, Kovalchuk put up his first 50 goal season (ended up with 52), and 98 points, while Spezza had his most productive season to date with 71 assists and 90 points in the 05-06 season. Each of the duo had three great seasons following that, and Spezza made it to the Stanely Cup Finals in 2007.
2009-10 to PRESENT
While Spezza has had his seasons cut to 60 games in each of the last two seasons with a variety of injuries, he has still managed nearly a point per game. Kovalchuck saw himself get traded from Atlanta to New Jersey, where due to the style of the Devils’ play, he has really been unable to put up the same numbers as he had in the free-wheeling Thrashers’ days.
It is difficult to compare the two players and their numbers because they came into completely different situations. Kovalchuk came in as a player on a weak team that needed all the help they could get to make a mark in their city. Spezza was nursed along and although he probably could have played and made a difference on a weaker team as an 18-year old, the Senators didn’t need him right away. As a result, Kovalchuk’s totals are higher, having played 170 more games than Spezza. However, when you look at the per game stats, the two are very similar points-wise, but how they got them are very different.
Kovalchuk’s downfall is that he has only played in 9 career playoff games. Once in Atlanta, and then two season ago after being dealt to New Jersey. He has 8 points (3G, 5A) in those 9 games. Spezza, on the other hand, has experienced the playoff 6 times for a total of 46 games played. He has managed exactly a point per game in the playoffs as well. Spezza has been to a cup final while Kovalchuk has never been past the first round.
Kovalchuk has the individual honours (a Maurice Richard Trophy) but Spezza has had the team success. Both have been criticized in the past for their defensive play, but Spezza is a +57 in his career and Kovalchuk is -112. I for one am pleased that Ottawa got the player they did, as Spezza seems to have the ability to make those around him better more than Kovalchuk does. In terms of pure scoring, there is no doubt that Kovalchuk has the edge, but you have to wonder about a player who has more goal than assists through more than 700 games played. Although someone had to score the goals with the inferior Atlanta teams he played on.