Alex Kovalev: From Pariah to the Messiah
Wayne Gretzky once commented on Alex Kovalev by saying he was the most talented player he had ever seen, himself included. Being the first Russian player ever to be selected in the first round, his arrival in New York was met with much fanfare in the fall of 1992. While being a young third line player, he was an integral part in the Rangers magical Cp run in 1994.
With a ring in his hand, the young Kovalev was expected to carry the team with an aging squad arond him giving him more importance on the offensive side of the rink. Putting up decent numbers, the expectations with being a high first rond pick, prove to be to heavy on the Russians shoulders, he was sent packing to the Penguins at the beginning of the 98 season.
Over the next few years, he established himself as one of the most explosive players in the NHL, reaching career highs in points in successive seasons. While Pittsburgh had a very talented team surrounding him, playoff success did not follow, and the team was forced to sched salaries due to playing in a decrepit arena with low revenues.
Returning to the Rangers, Kovalev's production fell drastically as the team did not have the pieces to compete against the better teams in the NHL. In 2004, he was once again traded, this time to Eastern Conference rivals, the Montreal Canadiens.
13 years into his career, the early high expectations for the talented Kovalev where now met with talk of him being a lazy player who did not care to live up to all the promise he showed as a youngster. Ending up on a rebuilding Habs team, Kovalev helped them reach the playoffs and showed flashes of the great player he could be.
With the arrival of the lockout, he joined the AK Bars Kazan in the Russian league, joining some NHL stars such as Vinnie Lecavalier and Brad Richards. While boasting the leagues highest payroll, the team failed to capture the championship, and Kovalev once again dissapointed with his sub par play.
in 2005, Kovalev returned to the NHL and had his best statistical season since his time with the Penguins, and though the Canadiens had made a late season playoff run, they where ousted by eventual champions, Carolina Hurricanes.
The following season, the Montreal team had high expectations at the beginning of the season, with goalie Cristobal Huet leading them to near the top of the standings by mid-december. With a flu-bug effectively ending all momentum, they failed to make the playoffs, and most of the blame fell on Kovalev. Suffering his worst season in over a decade, the media proclaimed him to be nothing more then a lazy Russian player who should be bought out. His claims to European journalists calling out his coach, did not help his reputation as a man who did not take responsibility for his failures.
With the disastrous team run at the end of the previous season, and the lack of free agent signings to improve the squad, most experts believed the Habs would struggle to stay out of the league basement.
Coming off a low-key summer, Alex Kovalev started the year on fire, leading the Habs once again to the top of the Conference, but most where weary of this accomplishment as they awaited another collapse by him and the team. However, unlike those other years, the Canadiens have maintained there pace and are not only scheduled to make the playoffs, they will enter the race for the Stanley Cup as one of the favorites to come out of the East.
With spotty goaltending, a first line that has struggled throughout the season, one man stoud up and has carried this team to first place.
That underachieving Russian, many where writing off at the start of the year, has put this team on his shoulders and is still going strong. On pace for his best season in close to ten years, his greatest accomplishment is the way he has become a leader in the dressing room. His hard play and his domination of the powerplay, has become an example to young players such as Plekanec and the Kostitsyn brothers.
From the start of his career, experts have waited for the day when the real Alex Kovalev would stand up and become the player they predicted. Some stars, like Crosby, shine from the first moment they step on an NHL rink, while others take there time to blossom. It is nice to see that a battle tested veteran has finally grabbed the spotlight and has shun as brightly as any player in the league this year.
Kovalev is a contender for the MVP award, but more importantly, he has a chance to return to the finals, and the fans in Montreal are foaming at the mouth to see what magic he has saved for the playoffs.
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