Will He Be Missed?
Although my biggest regret about the off season purge this summer is the loss of Saku Koivu, all I hear about from the Habs faithful is the loss of L'Artiste. Kovalev was undoubtedly the master of the Bell Centre crowd, and one of the more exciting players to watch in the NHL. Alex is also possibly the most purely skilled player I've ever seen touch a puck that isn't named Mario. But is his departure really as big of a loss as so many Canadiens fans believe? I don't think so.
Nobody on the Canadiens this coming season has the same flair that Kovalev has in the offensive zone, however I think Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri together make up for it. Kovalev was a wonder to behold in the offensive zone, and after his stellar and consistent performance in 07-08 what Montreal fan could not love him? He always scored when it was needed, and with Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn formed one of the most dynamic lines in the league. But the line disappeared in the playoffs, and was blown up almost as soon as the last season started when the chemistry seemed to no longer be there. And then the Kovalev that most people knew his entire career came back to the Bell Centre this year. Frustrated and not scoring, trying to deke out 5 players on the opposing team by himself instead of using his linemates, floating for long stretches, and losing battles with defensemen on the half boards as he holds onto the puck too long and loses his passing and shooting lanes. From time to time scoring streaks occured and everyone jumped back on the Kovalev bandwagon, hoping it would last, but it never did. It's certainly not fair to blame Kovalev for this last season, but to ignore his part in it is a little ignorant.
Attitude is an important thing in a dressing room, and despite what many say, Kovalev is a hard person to be a teammate with. He's a loner, rarely talks, and always seems unsatisfied (not in the good, burning passion way). Alex was supposed to be a leader on this team last season, and instead he often shirked his responsibilities and played selfishly. At one point it got so bad that his friend and confidant GM Bob Gainey sat him for two games. His attitude during the season may not have had a negative effect, but it didn't show the leadership that was expected of him, and it certainly didn't help the situation.
In terms of talent on right wing, no one on the Canadiens can replace Kovalev outright. Brian Gionta will not be replacing Alex Kovalev. He won't be the same game changer Kovalev can be. But the operative word in that last statement is "can". Alex Kovalev can completely take over a game, unquestionably, but ask yourself honestly how often it actually happens? Yes he had one spectacular season in Montreal, but on average he only plays average. In fact as often as Kovalev wins a game he has a big part in losing it. Untimely penalties and selfishness with the puck are staples of his game, like it or not. Kovalev is a two way street in his play. While he won't outdo Alex in panache, Brian Gionta will bring a much more consistent game to Montreal's right wing. He will also play a better team game, and make his linemates better, instead of ignoring them when the games get big. In terms of offensive production, I'm guessing that Kovalev in Ottawa will outpace Gionta in both goals and points, but not by much. The main reason I say this is because I'm assuming Kovalev will play with Spezza, who is a top tier playmaker. But Kovalev is always a mystery, and I would rather have consistent, hard nosed scorers on my team instead of someone I constantly have to coddle in order to get performance. Will he be missed? By the season ticket holders, yes. By the team, not at all.
How Should He Be Remembered?
It's a good question, because it's not easy to answer. I will always remember Kovalev streaking into the offensive zone against the Ranger on February 19th, 2007, in the third period, completing the most impressive and largest comeback in franchise history. Probably the greatest game I've ever had the privilege to watch. And in that respect I'll remember him fondly. But that memory is always going to be bitter sweet, because in my eyes, Alex Kovalev is a traitor.
When players go to free agency, they can sign with whatever team they want, and I have no problem with that, but it was the way in which the Kovalev saga went down that bothered me so much. Perhaps it's foolish naivete, but when someone waxes poetic about how much they love a city, team and franchise, I tend to believe that they're serious. Reason being that there's no reason to be so insistent about something like this if you don't feel that way. All through the last couple seasons Alex felt the need to tell anyone who would listen that Montreal is the only place outside of Russia that he had any desire to play. Stating many times that he would play for far less money to stay here because he loved it so much. When the time came to sign a new contract, Kovalev was offered a raise despite his enigmatic and relatively poor season. Neither Kovalev or his agent ever contacted the Canadiens organization with a counter offer, or even a decline. After a brief period of silence and a fan rally in front of the Bell Centre calling for his return, it was announced that Alex had signed with a division rival in the Ottawa Senators for just 500k more per year than the Canadiens' offer.
Many people absolve Kovalev from blame for this incident, claiming that it was his agent that kept him in the dark, or that Gainey forced him to make a decision too quickly, and then spurned him with the signing of Brian Gionta. I'll tackle the first assumption first. If Kovalev was displeased with the job his agent had done, why hasn't he been fired? If Kovalev was so serious about how much he loved Montreal, would 1 million dollars less over 2 years really have hurt someone who's made approximately 42.636 million dollars (courtesy hockeyzoneplus and nhlnumbers) in his career? If Kovalev was intent on staying in Montreal, would he not have told his agent that his priority was destination and not money? I would think so. As for feeling spurned by the signing of Gionta, perhaps he was a little. But Bob Gainey made an offer to Kovalev before free agency started, and he told him that he wanted to hear back as soon as possible, meaning that if a decision wasn't made quickly or negotiations taken seriously, Gainey's hand would be forced and he would have to look elsewhere for a right winger. And even after Gionta was signed, does anyone really believe that Gainey wouldn't send D'agostini to the minors for a year to have Kovalev come back at a one year low salary? It's well known that Bob Gainey loves Kovalev, but apparently the feeling isn't mutual enough to not betray a friend. The bottom line about this summer is that if Alex Kovalev WANTED to be a Montreal Canadien, he would be. He spurned us, and not the other way around.
The other problem with remembering Kovalev in a positive light is where he chose to sign. There were are 25 teams in the NHL that aren't division rivals. None of those teams appealed to Alex? He had to realize that the way he left Montreal was a slap in the face, but signing just across the Quebec/Ontario border was the heavy handed back hand. I'm sure Alex will do his best to show Montreal fans what they're missing in his 3 visits to the Bell Centre this coming season, and he will most likely be cheered upon his return, but I'll be booing.
On the plus side, perhaps now Ottawa Senators games will be entertaining for once and I'll have a reason to watch Sportnet East in HD when the Habs aren't playing.