Alex Kovalev: The Merchant of Chills and Thrills

For over 20 years, one name struck fear in countless NHL head coaches, player agents, scouts and general managers.

One name, one number:

Kovalev… Alexei Kovalev. Number 27. Or number 72. Depends on where he’s playing.

Or you could call him Alex. I’m sure he’s been called worse. Habs fans actually know him as l’artiste which means “the artist” for you French deprived out there. Websters dictionary defines an artist as “one skilled or versed in learned arts.”

Now you might not think that applies to Alex Kovalev, but it does. As it happens the man is somewhat of a renaissance man. Maybe this definition is more suitable?

Artist (n): one who is adept at something.

But maybe this one best sums up Alex Kovalev:

Artist (n): a skilled performer.

Yes if there’s one thing in which we can all agree it’s that Alex Kovalev is a skilled performer. And after announcing his retirement on Mar. 21, 2013, it can now be said that he was a skilled performer.

When he felt like it.

The Problem With Alex Kovalev

Alex Kovalev was the first Russian-born player ever to be drafted in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, picked 15th overall in 1991 by the New York Rangers and quickly distinguished himself with his impressive stickhandling abilities and laser-like wrist shot. Kovalev was a key component to the Rangers’ cup run in 1994 and was the first Russian to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, along with teammates Alexander Karpotsev and Sergei Nemchinov.

Kovalev may have been the most talented player many had ever seen, but whether his talent translated to the ice was an entirely different proposition. While it was universally recognized that he possessed all the skills to be an NHL superstar, it appeared to be a challenge for his coaches to channel and focus his considerable talent.

Coaching Kovalev was at once thrilling but maddening all at the same time. Former Rangers head coach Mike Keenan probably has the all-time best Kovalev tale, a story that says much about his strong will to compete but also how prone he was to playing in a world of his own. Kovalev regularly frustrated Keenan by taking chronically long shifts; so one night in New York when Kovalev skated to the bench for a change, Keenan told him to stay on. Keenan followed this by sending out only two new forwards for the next few shifts so Kovalev was forced to play on despite his fatigue. Ultimately Kovalev stayed out for over eight minutes until the period ended and he even scored a goal. Afterwards in his own inimitable style he exclaimed that he thought Keenan was rewarding him for good play. Funny. Ha ha.

Alex Kovalev had minimal impact during his 2011 return to Pittsburgh (Icon SMI)
Alex Kovalev had minimal impact during his 2011 return to Pittsburgh (Icon SMI)

Eventually though the laughter wore off and the enigmatic forward was shipped off to the Penguins. The problem with Alex Kovalev was that although he may have been one of the most skilled, gifted hockey players of his generation, the man they called l’artiste often took games off.

Because you know… the man had a lot on his mind.

It’s true his mind may have been in the clouds – literally. Alex Kovalev is an accomplished and licensed aircraft pilot and watching him play some nights, it actually looked like he was indeed somewhere else.

Kovy Thrives in Montreal

Kovalev eventually did find success with Mario Lemieux Pittsburgh, making the All-Star team for the first time in 2001 while netting a career high 44 goals. But the good times faded and Kovalev was shipped back to the Rangers after a couple of inconsistent and disappointing seasons. Finally he was traded to the Canadiens and after teasing fans and management with a few flashes of his brilliance, the powerful winger found a place within the team’s leadership corps and in 2007-2008 on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, he posted his second best statistical season with 35 goals and 49 assists. Kovalev was named captain of the Eastern Conference team for the 2008 All-Star game in Montreal and then named the game’s MVP. It finally appeared that former Habs GM Bob Gainey’s risk was starting to pay off.

But with the good comes the bad and per his track record that year was Kovalev’s high-water mark with the Canadiens. In typical fashion, Kovalev’s point totals began to taper off over the next few seasons. In 2009 Gainey even went so far as to tell Kovalev to take a few nights off and stay home while the team went on a road trip. It worked when he made his triumphant return to the lineup with a goal and two assists in a win against the Ottawa Senators.

Alexei Kovalev, Free Kovy
Habs fans rallied to attempt to keep Kovalev with the Habs, but to no avail.

Time was ticking on Kovalev in Montreal and eventually management’s patience ran out. Although he was offered a new contract with the Canadiens apparently Kovalev took too long to respond, so he was forced to accept a deal with Ottawa which ultimately was a bit of a disaster unproductive for both sides.

Kovalev didn’t want to leave Montreal because it was there where he found a city and fans who finally seemed to understand him. Dubbed l’Artiste, it was as though the city understood the nature of his talent; that the cost for witnessing greatness – as scattered as it was – was nevertheless worth the price of inconsistent and uninspired play over long periods of time. Artists are enigmatic, unconventional and often walk a line of their own making. If anything Alex Kovalev was consistent. It’s just that he was consistent in his inconsistency. He was above all true to his personal standard – he just refused to conform to anyone else’s set of standards for him.

Not Since Guy Lafleur

It can be a curse being a Montreal Canadiens fan. It’s not about conference championship banners, you know!? It’s tough when a team has a championship pedigree but can’t put it all together in the present to get back into the winner’s circle. Think the New York Yankees of the 1980’s or even the Detroit Red Wings until things started to pay off for them in the later ‘90’s. I can’t even imagine what Maple Leafs fans are going through. It’s a hard line when only winning the big prize will cut it. And for the Montreal Canadiens it hasn’t happened since 1993 when this storied franchise last drank from the sacred chalice that is the Stanley Cup.

And what Canadiens fan didn’t dream of seeing Alex Kovalev, with hair flowing and big smile on his face, hoist that cup over his head!? Kovalev’s immense talent and flashes of brilliance made Habs nation dream the dream. Too bad there were a few nightmares thrown in.

Kovalev channeled the Habs’ ghosts of the past. He generated the same kind of thrills and chills that Guy Lafleur created for Habs fans when he was at the top of his game in the late seventies. Le démon blond – as he was known – was one of the best players of his generation and was a gifted goal scorer who seemed to come up big when it mattered. He literally picked fans out of their seats with his moves and playmaking abilities.

Alex Kovalev had this ability. The man had a flair for the dramatic. My favourite Kovalev moment – in a Canadiens uniform – was against the Boston Bruins in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs. Helmet knocked off, Kovalev with dirty blond hair flowing, heroically carries the puck into the Boston zone, then somehow getting the puck in the slot where he found the back of the net with a quick backhand. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it. Take a look.

Hall of Fame Credentials? Nope

Alex Kovalev retired on March 21, 2013 after a comeback with the Florida Panthers went south. After Kovalev signed his one year pact in Florida, I mentioned that people usually go to Florida to retire. How right I was!!

But Kovalev’s end wasn’t too hard to predict. He hadn’t played an NHL game since 2011 with the Penguins and at the age of 39, he would be hard pressed to stick with any squad, let alone the Panthers. Florida management may have thought he could be a mentor to some of their younger players like Jonathan Huberdeau. And the man did assist on the rook’s first NHL goal. But Kovalev isn’t that kind of player. He can’t be a mentor. He’s in a world of his own making and nobody else is invited. And it’s nothing personal. That’s just the way he rolls. But wasn’t it exciting how after two games Kovalev was leading the league in scoring!? But I knew… we knew… it couldn’t last. And it didn’t.

Now that he’s retired, the words “Hall of Fame” and “Kovalev” suddenly became linked. Credit Kovalev as to how good a player he was for the media to even mention the two together. But that’s not going to happen. Yes Kovalev was a superb player. Maybe the most gifted player anyone has ever seen. But you can be good all you like in practice. It’s what happens during games that matters the most, especially when a career is all said and done. And though Alex Kovalev has very good numbers, he does not have Hall of Fame numbers.

Alex Kovalev: 1,316 regular season games – 430 goals, 599 assists and 1,029 points.

If you compare these numbers with those of Vincent Damphousse, who ain’t going to no Hall of Fame celebrations, you know Alex Kovalev will have to be happy with being the only member of his own personal Hall of Fame (he’s been a member for awhile now).

Vincent Damphousse: 1,378 regular season games – 432 goals, 773 assists and 1,205 points.

And maybe, just maybe, part of the Montreal Canadiens’ franchise Hall of Fame one day.

True, Kovalev was apt to take nights off. But when he came to play, he was a difference maker. When he was on it was something special to see. He could move through players like the puck was on a string. He could roof that puck over a goalie’s shoulder with even the slightest of angles to work with. He was money in the shootout when he went backhand top shelf. No goalie anywhere could save that shot. He could skate effortlessly, magically — gliding, shifting, turning as if he was the conductor of his own symphony, the writer of his own narrative, the pilot of his own jet airplane. Flying oh so high, yet oh so alone.

Kovalev the player was ultimately like a magical elixir that presented NHL GMs with the answers to all of life’s problems but the tradeoff was an entirely new set of headaches. Time and time again he was deemed worth the risk. What NHL GM hasn’t pondered the question whether they could be the one who could somehow get through to him and push all the right buttons to get the best of Alex Kovalev on a regular basis!? Is he worth it? The lows may be low, but the highs! Oh they’re so high!!