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Rambler's Top100

11 2003
Rangers expect big return from Kovalev - New Jersy Star-Ledger

BY BRIDGET WENTWORTH

NEW YORK -- Alexei Kovalev's first stint with the Rangers was all about unfulfilled promise and bursts of brilliance that usually led nowhere.

The Rangers are hoping Kovalev's second stint is all about the ability of one talented player to spark a team's drive to the playoffs.

Rangers general manager and coach Glen Sather acquired Kovalev from the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday, along with defensemen Janne Laukkanen and Mike Wilson and forward Dan LaCouture, in exchange for forwards Rico Fata and Mikael Samuelsson and defensemen Joel Bouchard and Richard Lintner.

In doing so, the Rangers added about $5 million to their already bloated payroll and, it is believed, also included $4 million in the transaction. Kovalev, 29, is up for salary arbitration this summer, which could take him from his $4.6 million salary to upward of $8 million for next season and beyond.

It was an expensive day for the Rangers, but one Sather believed was well worth it. Since former GM Neil Smith traded Kovalev to Pittsburgh for Petr Nedved in November of 1998, Kovalev has emerged as one of the most explosive, exciting talents in the NHL.

"He's an elite player, he's got tremendous skills, he competes. And we need somebody who can put the puck in the net," Sather said. "We're still (six) points out, and we're not sure when Pavel Bure and Brian Leetch will be back (from injury). We needed additional scoring. This guy can do it, this helps us out immensely."

He is in the top five in scoring with 27 goals and 37 assists for 64 points in 54 games. He ranks in the top 10 in goals and assists, and in the top five in power-play assists and power-play points.

Perhaps even more impressive for those who remember his Rangers days of fancy plays with nothing to show for them, Kovalev ranks in the top five in shots on goal with 212. He is finally putting the puck on the net, and led the Penguins in goals (32), assists (44), and points (76) last season and went to his second All-Star Game earlier this month.

Sather has vowed that the Rangers, six points out of a playoff spot as of yesterday, are going to make the postseason. He wants Kovalev to help them get there.

"I think when you get a chance to get a player like Kovalev, you can't pass it up," Sather said. "I'm happy to make the deal. If we get healthy and stay healthy, it's a great opportunity to do a lot of things."

Matthew Barnaby played with Kovalev in Pittsburgh for two years and was profuse in his praise for the winger.

"I think he's the most talented player in the NHL," Barnaby said. "He's strong, he's big, he can skate, he's the best stick-handler I've ever seen in my life, and he can shoot the puck, too.

"He's a great addition. He's unbelievable. He's by far the most talented player I've ever played with in my life."

Barnaby was reminded that he also played with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

"On pure talent alone, (Kovalev) is that good," he replied.

Sather will know better today how he will use Kovalev when he makes his debut against Florida tomorrow night. Kovalev can play any forward position, which makes it easier on Sather, who watched Kovalev during his inconsistent career with the Rangers from 1992 to 1998 when the best he ever managed was 26 goals and 58 points.

"He was a great player then, but he was still trying to figure out how to use those talents," Sather said. "We're going to use him a lot here."

Good news for Kovalev, a sweet personality and a coach's nightmare all rolled into one. Roger Nielson, Ron Smith, Mike Keenan, Colin Campbell and John Muckler all wondered how they could make Kovalev's superior talent blossom into scoring production. Kovalev thinks he found the answer when he went to Pittsburgh.

"I liked everything (in New York). Maybe I had some trouble with coaches. They (the Penguins) gave me freedom, and if I get that in New York, that's the most important for me," Kovalev said. "The biggest part (of success in Pittsburgh) is that I played a lot more, I got a lot of confidence from my playing time and from the trust of the coaches. You go out, and you have fun. Everybody makes mistakes, but you always have time to fix them.

"That's the kind of opportunity I had in Pittsburgh."

Still, Kovalev holds nothing against Smith or former coaches or anyone else. He found his game in Pittsburgh, and he's bringing it to the Rangers at a time when they desperately need help. Kovalev never gave up on coming back to New York one way or the other -- he kept his home in Westchester County in order to move back after he retired.

"Just to be able to come back where I started, to get the opportunity to go where I won and take the team to the playoffs and the Cup again ... I feel like I'm going back home," Kovalev said. "This is my second home." 

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3 . Kovalev faces uncertain future - Tribune - Review

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