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The incomparable Kovalev // The Ottawa Citizen
All eyes are on the headstrong veteran as the Canadiens seek to build on last season, Dave Stubbs reports.
MONTREAL -Alex Kovalev has never compared himself to any other player in the National Hockey League. Heading into his 16th season, he's not about to start.
The talk in every corner about the 2008-09 Montreal Canadiens is of the possibilities. Of the encore, at the very least, that's expected of last season's Eastern Conference champion that skated two rounds deep into the playoffs -- a post-season both satisfying and unfulfilling.
Kovalev has won a Stanley Cup in New York. He's played on some thoroughbred clubs and some nags, and been magnificent and median through three seasons in Montreal.
His leadership last season was recognized by head coach Guy Carbonneau, who put the captain's C on his No. 27 jersey when Saku Koivu missed one game with the flu and nine more with a broken foot.
Kovalev has seen it all in hockey, so you wonder aloud to him: "Is there anyone in the Canadiens dressing room today who even remotely reminds him of himself say a decade ago, a young stud who has the same fire in the eyes and the belly?"
"No," he says, grinning tightly. "Not even close."
Confidence and sense of self are not among the qualities Kovalev was shortchanged, and both played starring roles in his dramatic resurgence last season.
From a 40-watt 2006-07 -- "disappointing," he ranks it, since 18 goals and 29 assists should be his output after 50 games, not the 73 he played -- to last year's 1,000-watt campaign, his 84 points the second-best production of his career.
From minus-17 to plus-18 in the plus/minus column, with a team-leading 11 playoff points, Kovalev captured the Molson Cup in a rout, winning four of six segments for the prize awarded for Canadiens' three-star selections.
All of which, of course, is yesterday's news, since what he does this season will largely determine the Canadiens' destination next spring. "Anything's possible," Kovalev said at the start of training camp.
"It's not like I'm going to say to you that I'm going to make 90, 100 points. I'm going to try to do my best, that's all I can say. I'll hopefully elevate my game to a different level. That's the only way there's a possibility to win the Stanley Cup."
The 35-year-old from Togliatti, Russia, says his stellar season was not meant to prove anything to anyone, since he long ago gave up on that.
"I've already proven enough in my career," he said, having racked up 368 goals and 508 assists through 1,073 regular-season games with the Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers, with whom he broke into the NHL at age 19.
"People know who I am and what I'm capable of. I'm trying to do my best every year. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not. It's up to me to change things and make them better, and that's what I did last year. It happened."
Almost certainly head coach Guy Carbonneau will begin the season with Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn flanking centre Tomas Plekanec, who formed the Canadiens' most prolific line last season.
And Kovalev might well this season take the departed Mark Streit's spot on a power-play point.
"I'm ready for any position they want to use me," he said, reminding that power-play ace Streit, like Sheldon Souray before him, is not irreplaceable.
"It definitely would be nice to be reunited (with newcomer Robert Lang). He's a great player who can do power-play, penalty-kill, pretty much anything."
"But I don't make the (line) decisions and we have a good chemistry with Kostitsyn and Plekanec. It's good to have options, more than we had last year, with the additions (of Lang, Alex Tanguay and Georges Laraque). It should be easy to not worry about who's going to be playing in certain situations."
He joked -- or didn't -- that he'll slip the veteran Laraque, "a strong guy who has some skills," a copy of his instructional DVD "to teach him some of the tricks.
"The young guys have to step up and show that last year was not an accident. Two years ago, when we didn't make (the 2006-07) playoffs, everybody came in for training camp not sure what kind of team we'd have or what we could do. We should be more positive now."
Are the Canadiens a better team than last year?
"That's what we're going to find out."
Kovalev will grip his stick with a new look this season, sporting uniquely crafted AK27 gloves whose airplane logo celebrates his love of the twin-engine Cessna he pilots. And it's quite possible his skates will resemble retracted landing gear -- he reported to camp with 10 pounds shaved off the 224 he carried last year.
"These days people are saying I'm too slow," he joked -- or didn't -- seemingly poured into a Moscow Country Club golf shirt. "So I've got to keep up with the young guys, get some speed somewhere.
"I feel a little quicker, more comfortable. The older you get, you know how much shape you're losing and the more (off-season) time you spend running, jumping. When you were a young kid, you didn't have to worry about it as much."
Kovalev is one of 10 Canadiens who's eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next July. Like the rest, he says he has more immediate concerns than talking contract.