Fantasy Hockey Fubar: I Lost Kovalchuk….now what?

So the unexpected happened and Ilya Kovalchuk left the NHL for the KHL. A player of his talent and impact rarely “retires” in his prime. There has been talk on a variety of athletes who have done so. Also, the possibility exists of other high end professionals leaving. Granted, this may not occur but it is something to think about now for fantasy owners. It must be in your vocabulary err the conversation.

When you rock the fantasy hockey world, the first few days in the summer is kind of the initial blast, if you will. Over the coming months and years will be the aftershocks. Some may be worse than the initial shakeup so to speak.

Lundqvist beats Devils
Fantasy hockey circles turned upside down with the Ilya Kovalchuk news. Now what do you do? (Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)

It is not often a superstar leaves in their prime. There has been so much perspective but think what happened when Barry Sanders left Detroit. For those who do not remember the fantasy football landscape back then, here is a brief history lesson. Sanders was the best running back in football…period! When a guy retires in their prime at or near the top of their sport, it creates headlines but it creates even bigger effects down the road. The retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk is going to do much the same.

Some Kovalchuk fantasy hockey numbers……

Yes he averaged exactly a point a game in his NHL career (816 pts in 816 games). We will dig through the numbers a bit more later. Everyone seems to like numbers so here are a few from Hockey Reference.

The career of Kovalchuk

Yr Tm GP G A P PPG SH GW PPA S S% ATOI
01-02 ATL 65 29 22 51 7 0 4 8 184 15.8 18:32
02-03 ATL 81 38 29 67 9 0 3 13 257 14.8 19:27
03-04 ATL 81 41 46 87 16 1 6 17 341 12.0 23:41
05-06 ATL 78 52 46 98 27 0 7 29 323 16.1 22:23
06-07 ATL 82 42 34 76 18 0 7 14 336 12.5 21:32
07-08 ATL 79 52 35 87 16 2 4 14 283 18.4 21:30
08-09 ATL 79 43 48 91 12 0 6 24 275 15.6 21:48
09-10 TOT 76 41 44 85 12 0 4 15 290 14.1 22:02
09-10 ATL 49 31 27 58 10 0 3 9 179 17.3 22:14
09-10 NJD 27 10 17 27 2 0 1 6 111 9.0 21:40
10-11 NJD 81 31 29 60 9 0 9 12 245 12.7 22:34
11-12 NJD 77 37 46 83 10 3 5 19 310 11.9 24:26
12-13 NJD 37 11 20 31 2 4 5 12 123 8.9 24:44
Tot 816 417 399 816 138 10 60 177 2967 14.1 21:58

As I have often said many times in fantasy hockey, the devil is in some of the details. We also introduced power play assists just for a bit of a change-up to the norm. After all, the same old grows boring quickly. Plus power play points have become a bit more relevant in fantasy circles. Hey, we are always looking for the new. Edges and trends become an integral part of projections but exceptions to the rule are fascinating also. Imagine if Kovalchuk had kept playing in New Jersey for a second. Now forget about it! That is the void you face as a fantasy owner of the former New Jersey Devil.

There were many peculiar numbers from last year’s season from Kovalchuk that indicated a lot of exceptions rather than the new custom. The biggest eye popper was that 8.9% shooting percentage. Kovalchuk missed a lot more than his 14.1% career average and over a full season that is a difference of fifteen goals. Yes you heard right. Fifteen! Then it gets a bit ugly. Ilya Kovalchuk had two power play goals last season. That would be four over an 82 game schedule. Most of his power play goals did come during the second half but Kovalchuk was in the top ten as far as shots on the man advantage along with scoring chances. It was thought that the 2013-14 campaign would have bore more power play fruit for #17.

Now one thing that did become a trend was the increase in average time on ice. That was a category Kovalchuk owners could almost smile for. Last year, he nearly averaged 25:00 a night as a focal point of the Devils offense. Also, Kovalchuk was one of those players that seemed to generate almost a scoring chance a game while on the penalty kill. He did have seven shorthanded tallies in the last two seasons.

And just like that…..it is gone…..

Fantasy sports are worse than a cold shoulder. The people have voiced their frustrations but that will not bring Ilya Kovalchuk back to the NHL. How long is he really gone for? That answer lies with Ilya himself. In the meantime, this creates so many ripple effects for the fantasy owner. Players have moved, fantasy teams are impacted, and panic has entered into the vocabularies of some. When does this hysteria reach its zenith? Does it ever really end? The answers are not all that clear at the moment.

The areas are there to break down as far as effect but there will probably be some unexpected consequences — both good and bad. Here is one thing you will definitely not see fantasy owners.

Ouch! That was harsh. The memory err memories remain as they say. All that production is gone. The players that benefited from Kovalchuk’s ability to possess the puck is gone. Those players who saw a boost from the winger have lost that boost. Yes, greater players have retired and left a void but not in their prime. This is of course in the text of say the last 15-20 years where fantasy hockey has increased in its scope and relevance. Again, there are just so many impacts. Let’s attempt to list a few anyway.

The Fantasy Impacts……

First, we preface by saying that most owners in leagues have a pretty significant void in their roster. Again, here is that quick list.

  • Vulnerable owners looking for a top winger / forward
  • How those owners ultimately proceed without Kovalchuk
  • Forwards signed in New Jersey (Clowe, Olesz, Ryder) versus Kovalchuk
  • The other players in New Jersey……

The reality is these are the four major precepts. As the season goes, I have a feeling that this will be modified. These precepts cannot be expounded on too deeply just yet because it is just five days after the initial shock. Time exists between now and say mid or late August where fantasy hockey owners will start taking hard looks at their teams. That will be the crucial time though surely people will think and sometimes in fantasy, thinking can be extremely dangerous in crucial times.

Owners will eventually try to part with certain assets in an attempt to somewhat replicate Kovalchuk’s production. The obvious answer is that it is not worth it but some are going to go all out to try to anyway. That is just the nature of the business. There are always those who will just panic for the sake of panic. Fairly or unfairly, those are the best types of owners to take advantage of. This really does sound unethical, doesn’t it?

Everybody knows that what comes into New Jersey is not going to equal what Kovalchuk brought to the table so other New Jersey players (even if some Brunner individual eventually signs) are likely to take a fantasy hit to a point. The departure of David Clarkson plus inherent chemistry issues early will see to that. What may prove to be more fascinating is the second half of the year but again we are prematurely jumping the gun here.

The question for readers and experts alike is this. How are you handling this news from a strategic standpoint? In August, I will compile these results into an article but the fact remains when a top player leaves your time like this, what becomes the mindset and then ultimately the plan? Who are you targeting or trying to avoid? This is going to become an interesting fantasy case study from short to long term. Good luck fantasy hockey fans. You are going to need it!