Saturday, 30 July 2011

Walking Away

It's official: Alexei Kovalev will not be suiting up for any NHL teams next season unless he wants to go through the waiver wire. Kovalev decided that he would be best to take his trade back to Russia where he signed a a two-year deal with Atlant Mytishchi of the KHL on Friday. The talented winger who never seemed to give 100% will now be one of the KHL's biggest stars after Jaromir Jagr jumped ship back to the NHL and Alexei Yashin announced that he was possibly looking for a suitor in the NHL. While Yashin's game has deteriorated significantly since the turn of the millenium, there was always hope that Kovalev would show more drive that what he did in his latter years in the NHL. So this image might be the best way for a number of NHL teams to remember Kovalev as he walks away from the NHL for at least two season.

Kovalev looked like a shell of the once-dynamic player that played for the Penguins long ago. His work in this year's playoffs after being acquired by Pittsburgh at the trade deadline was nothing short of dreadful for an offensive talent: one goal and one assist in seven playoff games. It was the worst statistical output of his career in the playoffs, and it seemed that he didn't even want to be there during the series against Tampa Bay.

I'm not here to disparage Kovalev as a human being because he always seemed like a decent man. It was, however, maddeningly frustrating to watch him night after night put in an effort that would have most players stapled to the bench. Backchecking? Foreign concept. Defensive awareness? Greek to him. He was an offensive force when he wanted to be, but the problem was that he rarely wanted to be. In short, the guy could score, but he wouldn't work hard for his goals, and he rarely put in an effort to stop goals from being scored against his team.

Don't believe me? I'm sure a lot of you remember this play from the 2004 NHL Playoffs where Kovalev's gaffe and "apparent injury" allowed Glen Murray to score the overtime winner.

Kovy, it's THE PLAYOFFS. Y'know, where guys play hurt all the time. You got tapped on the glove, and it looked you you took a bullet while completely forgetting about the puck. To make matters worse, you skate directly into Sheldon Souray, allowing Glen Murray to streak in on the partial breakaway and bury the puck. WHAT WERE YOU DOING AND THINKING???

And it's not like this hasn't happened in his career just once. Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber wrote an entire article in 2008 on how Kovalev's antics while with the Canadiens kept them guessing as to which Kovalev was coming to play: the talented scoring winger who could control a game, or the invisible, uninterested liability that cost Montreal games.

In 2007, The Hockey News' Ryan Dixon compared baseball's Manny Ramirez to hockey's Alexei Kovalev in terms of their amazing set of talents, but the unwillingness to put those talents on display most nights. As Dixon writes,
"Stop expecting more than skill-induced bursts of excellence. Just sit back, enjoy watching Kovalev make the puck dance the way only a handful of other players in the world can and when the inevitable other skate drops, just swallow hard and accept that’s Alex being Alex."
No one is denying that Alexei Kovalev is a world-class offensive talent. The guy can skate, score, shoot, and pass, and not many teams have a player of his amazing offensive abilities on their rosters. But Alexei Kovalev simply doesn't live up to his billing in the majority of games over his career. He plays, he notches a point or two, but his act seems to have worn thin on a number of franchises over the last decade especially.

I'm sad to see a guy of Kovalev's immense talent hop across the pond to the KHL, but you have to hope that Nikolai Borshevsky, head coach of Atlant Mytishchi, can somehow deal with Kovalev's apparent ADHD on the ice. If not, Kovalev's retirement could come long before his target-retirement age of 50. I think that, as a Penguins fan, I just became so frustrated with Kovalev that I simply wanted him stuck to the end of the bench where he couldn't do any less than what he was doing on the ice.

Good luck in the KHL and with Atlant Mytishchi this season, Mr. Kovalev, and I wish you nothing but the best as you embark on next step of your hockey career!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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