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This should be Kovalev's year; "But if there's one thing certain about Habs forward, it's his unpredictability." // The Gazette.
Would the real Alex Kovalev please stand up?
That's a question frustrated Canadiens fans must be asking themselves this season - and I imagine the thought has also crossed coach Guy Carbonneau's mind.
Is the real Kovalev the one who led the Canadiens to a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season with 35 goals and 49 assists for 84 points, or is it the one we're seeing this season, who had
13-24-37 totals after an assist in last night's 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs?
The Kovalev we're seeing this season looks a lot like the one we saw in 2006-07 with the Canadiens, when he finished the season with 18-29-47 totals.
A frustrated Carbonneau benched Kovalev during the third period of last Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins.
"Right now, he's struggling," Carbonneau said after benching Kovalev, "but we need him (if we're going to) go far."
The coach added: "We need all 20 guys on-board if we're going to win."
Kovalev was minus-2 last night. In Friday's 3-2 loss to the Sabres in Buffalo, he pitched a shutout: no points, no shots on goal and no hits, to go along with a minus-1 and four penalty minutes.
If a team is going to succeed in today's NHL, it needs its best players to be playing their best. And the best player in the NHL, in my opinion, is the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin. What makes him so great is that he has top-line talent combined with a fourth-liner's work ethic. It's sort of like combining Kovalev and Steve Begin into one player. Talent plus hard work equals consistency.
Heading into last night's game against Florida, the 23-year-old Ovechkin ranked No. 1 in the NHL in goals (37), third in points (68), first in shots (333 - an incredible 111 more than Carolina's Eric Staal, who was second) and sixth in hits (168 - only 26 behind Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck, who was first). Ovechkin does it all.
By comparison, heading into last night, Kovalev, who will turn 36 on Feb. 24, ranked 104th in goals, 79th in points, 40th in shots (149) and a mind-boggling 320th in hits (41). Fourth-liner Begin ranked 32nd in the league in hits with 115, despite missing 13 games and having less than half of Kovalev's total ice time for the season (417 minutes for Begin and 1,018 for Kovalev). Unfortunately, Begin wasn't blessed with Kovalev's skills, with only six goals and four assists, but he always comes to play.
An interesting stat I've come up with to show just how much Ovechkin comes to play every night is production per minute (PPM). Heading into last night's game, Ovechkin had 1,180 minutes of total ice time (an average of 23:08 per game). He was averaging a point every 17 minutes, a shot every 31/2 minutes and a hit every seven minutes. (Begin averages a hit every 31/2 minutes.) Heading into last night, Kovalev, whose average ice time was 19:34, was averaging a point every 28 minutes, a shot every seven minutes and a hit every 25 minutes.
This is Kovalev's 16th season in the NHL after being the New York Rangers' first-round pick (15th overall) at the 1991 entry draft. His most productive season was in 2000-01 with the Pittsburgh Penguins when he had 44-51-95 totals. His second-best year was last season with the Canadiens.
The Kovalev we've seen this season is similar to the one we saw in the Big Apple during the 2003-04 season, when he had
13-29-42 totals in 66 games with the New York Rangers before they decided they had seen enough and dealt him to the Canadiens just before the NHL trade deadline in exchange for Jozef Balej and a second-round draft pick in 2004 (Bruce Graham). In his last game with the Rangers - a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers at Madison Square Garden - Kovalev had one assist and took three undisciplined penalties.
Don Maloney, the Rangers' vice-president for player personnel and assistant general manager at the time, told Jason Diamos of the New York Times after the trade: "It didn't work for him here, for whatever reason, this time around. To me, of all the things that have happened here, that is the biggest mystery."
Rangers GM Glen Sather told The Gazette's Red Fisher after the trade: "You can tell (Canadiens GM Bob) Gainey he made a good trade. Kovalev is talented as hell. He was trying too hard here ... trying to do things by himself and it wasn't working. He's strong as a horse, but the crowd just wasn't taking to him. He's a good person.
"He was a little relieved," Sather added. "I talked to him later, and he thanked me for the time he spent with the team ... told me he was sorry things hadn't worked out. Like I said ... he's a good person.
"I think he can help the Canadiens," Sather continued. "He plays best when he's with guys who are give-go players. I thought he'd do it with (Mark) Messier. It didn't work. I thought he'd do it with (Bobby) Holik and with (Eric) Lindros. It didn't work."
And it doesn't seem to be working well again this season - no matter who Carbonneau puts Kovalev on a line with. One would think this would be the year Kovalev would really light it up, since he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season. But if there's one thing certain about Kovalev, it's his unpredictability.
The Canadiens are in Calgary tomorrow night to begin a six-game road trip that could make or break their season.
It will be interesting to see which Alex Kovalev shows up.