Rambler's Top100

3 2002 . 
Kovalev faces uncertain future - Tribune - Review

By Karen Price

The business end of the hockey world just stares you down like a boxer before a fight when the Penguins and the Washington Capitals play. Its unavoidable.

In one corner, the small-market Penguins, Mario Lemieux and Alexei Kovalev. In the other corner, the big-market Capitals, Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang.

Fans at Mellon Arena for tonights game will jeer and boo the former Penguins players because, although through different avenues, they both took the money and ran.

But still wearing a Penguins uniform is a guy who could be the next one to leave. Kovalev doesnt like to talk about his contract situation now that the season has started. Negotiations between his agent, Scott Greenspun, and general manager Craig Patrick arent expected to resume until the season ends.

But the facts are this: Greenspun and Patrick couldnt reach an agreement before the season started. So, Kovalev is in the final year of his current deal, making $4.6 million. He will be a restricted free agent July 1, so he cant just walk away, like Lang did. He does have arbitration rights, however. And with the season hes threatening to have, his reward in arbitration could be steep.

Its possible that he could receive an offer from another team, which is rare for a restricted free agent. But for a player of his caliber, its not out of the question. He could be traded at some point before the March deadline, depending on a number of variables. Or the two sides could still come up with a new agreement on their own, keeping him in Pittsburgh.

"Its tough. Its the nature of the business because the stronger teams just get stronger," Lang said. "Guys like Kovy, doing what hes doing now, theres going to be some serious coin for him. And good for him, he deserves it. Its just harder for the small-market teams to keep their good players. Thats in every sport. Its going to be tough for Mario to keep him here, but you never know. Maybe they will come up with something."

Lang was the most recent Penguins player to leave for a big contract. He made $2.9 million in his last year in Pittsburgh, then signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Capitals on July 1. Thats similar to an offer Kovalev reportedly rejected from Patrick in September. Lang knew all last year that he wasnt in the the Penguins' long-term plans.

"At the last minute, something could happen, but you know what are the odds and what are the chances youre either staying or going," he said. "You play the game for long enough, you know whats going to happen."

Kovalev has probably weighed the same odds at one point or another. He did turn down two offers in September. For now, hes not thinking about it, though. Theres no point.

"When the season come,s I dont think about whats going on if I have a contract or not," he said. "I fully concentrate on being successful and being what I want to be. I make my goals for the season and try to achieve them."

One of his goals is, of course, to win the Stanley Cup. And Kovalev believes the Penguins have the chance to shock everyone and do just that. Hes certainly helping both cases the Penguins and his own with 15 goals and 18 assists for 33 points through 23 games. As of Monday morning, he was tied with Bostons Joe Thornton for second in the scoring race, now 13 points behind Lemieux.

"I dont know whats going to happen," Kovalev said. "All I can say is I hope I stay here. I like everything here, and this organization has really given me a good opportunity to be where I want to be and who I want to be and be successful. I hope I stay here, but its something I cant control. If they keep me, they keep me. If not, it would be disappointing, but careers continue." 

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