TORONTO -- Maybe all the off-season controversy about his contract extension doing an end-run around the Collective Bargaining Agreement has fazed him.
Maybe the five playoff games he appeared in last spring for the Devils tired him out, since he hadn't played in the post-season before that since 2006-07.
Maybe having teammate Zach Parise go down with a knee injury has thrown off his rhythm.
Whatever the answer, the question is: What's wrong with Ilya Kovalchuk?
The massively talented Russian forward has zero points in his last five games; two in his last 10 and a grand total of 10 points in his first 23 games this season. He has one goal in November, which ties him with New York Rangers tough guy Derek Boogaard. The Devils own tough guy, David Clarkson, has the same number of goals, four, as Kovalchuk. The other day Kovy lost the puck on a shootout breakaway before he even reached the net.
There are poolies across North America pulling their hair out each time they read a Devils box score. And Kovalchuk is only the most high-profile culprit. The Devils as a team have scored 45 goals in 24 games, good for dead last in the National Hockey League. Even the anemic Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders have lit the lamp more often than the punchless Devils. Head coach John MacLean's hair, if he has any left to pull out, is graying with alarming rapidity.
Before coming to New Jersey in a trade last February with Atlanta, the team that drafted him first overall in 2001, the 27-year-old had topped 40 goals in a season six times and two of those times he topped 50. Since he entered the league in 2001-02, Kovalchuk has been one of the most exciting players in the game; a sniper with blinding speed who can score from anywhere inside the blue line. He's averaged just over a point a game for his career, with 652 in 644 games.
Awesome consistency; until now.
With defense-first coach Jacques Lemaire gone, you'd think Kovalchuk would be unleashed. Instead, he's been neutered, and we can't even blame the coaches on this one. Kovy is getting heaps of ice time, but nothing's working. To add insult to his paltry offensive stats, Kovalchuk is a minus-11.
Maybe a scarcity of ice time might jolt Kovalchuk into some results. It can't hurt. Maybe MacLean needs to send his star player to the press box for a game or two to give him some time to think.
The last time he was a healthy scratch, on October 23 in a 6-1 home loss to Buffalo, Kovalchuk responded with a goal, five shots and a minor penalty (although the Devils lost that game 3-1 to the Rangers).
Another suggestion would be for Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello to start working the phones to acquire a set-up man for Kovalchuk. There has to be a disgruntled playmaker or two out there who could help Kovy get untracked.
Or maybe go back to the future. How is Paul Kariya's recovery from post- concussion syndrome coming along? He might be able to help. Does Joe Sakic want to come out of retirement? It's not too late.