Alexei Kovalev and the Ottawa Senators: Romance On The Rocks?

Dave MorrisContributor IOctober 28, 2009

Is the romance between Ottawa and Alexei Kovalev already on the rocks?

Just nine games into his first season as a Senator, the stress cracks were showing. Expected to be the high-flyer who would help carry the club back to the playoffs, AK27 has sputtered. 

Between Daniel Alfredsson’s dour work ethic, aw-shucks-eh Jason Spezza, the hardhat and lunch-pail play of Chris Neil and Matt Carkner, and the goalmouth acrobatics of Pascal Leclaire, L’Artiste Alex fits nowhere in the picture.

In Montreal, his relationship with the team, fans, and press was one of love-hate. But they had a passion for Comrade Alexei Vyacheslavovich. Kovalev needs the passion.

Ottawa, with its civil servants, tech heads, and blue-collar workers, has none of the pizazz of his former homes in Montreal and New York that nourished Alex’s ego; and unlike Pittsburgh, no Super Mario and Jagr are there to inspire him. Ottawa is a nice town. But not his kind of town.

And the Senators, for all their aspirations to re-incarnating the original, may not be Alex’s kind of club.

The romance got off to a shaky start. Kovalev said Ottawa had been a choice of last resort and that he saw himself returning to Montreal to finish his career. These statements incited a reaction similar to that of a husband hearing his new trophy wife declare publicly that she really did still have a thing for her old flame.

The emotional disconnect has shown in his game. Three goals in nine games might be respectable, but 12 shots and a minus-four are not. The talk is that Kovy picks his spots and turns on the talent only when it suits him—as in the Senators’ recent victory in Montreal.

Alex plays to the crowd. His razzle-dazzle at Le Centre Bell was a love letter. “Do you miss me?” he seemed to say. “I know you do.”

When Milan Michalek, who came over in the Heatley trade, overshadows Kovalev both on the score sheet and in the public eye, Alex is left playing on the psychological perimeter.

Alex Kovalev needs to be the star. In Ottawa, he is simply a highly-paid hockey player.

The fan-boards and media in the nation’s capital already seem to have their fill of The Enigma. The production is not commensurate with the salary, say the hockey scribes and talk-show hosts. Coach Cory Clouston has to “find a way to light a fire under Kovalev” writes The Citizen’s Ken Warren, frown emanating from every syllable.

As if anyone except Alex could.

Ask Bob Gainey. Kovalev called him “the only person who really understands me.” Their up-and-down relationship ended in an acrimonious divorce, Alex’s acolytes carrying placards outside the arena to no avail.

For now, "The Sens Army," that loyal group of partisans who live and die with every tremor of their team, are left dangling. Like an Alex Kovalev sequence that looks pretty, but goes nowhere.

They want to see Kovalev bury the biscuit with his scalpel-like shot. They have no comprehension of the complexity of Kovalev’s persona, and no tolerance for his antics.

Owner Eugene Melnyk, anticipating a drop in season-ticket sales after last year’s failure to reach the postseason, presumably saw the signing of the flashy Russian as a way to boost the box office. The Senators’ advertising portrays Kovalev as the Kalashnikov who will blast holes in the opposition: his features in heroic light, his face mimicking the fury of the centurion on his chest.

When pressed, GM Bryan Murray deflects the critics, pointing to the statistical logic of giving Mr. Kovalev $10 million for two years. Murray, like the Irish pastor from the "Boys Town" movies, insists all his lads are good lads. Father Murray is nothing if not patient and forgiving.

But Alexei Kovalev may be suspected of having entered into a marriage of convenience. Is AK27 just a mercenary who takes a paycheck from the Sens and their Army, but is not willing to take a bullet for the home side?

Should the Senators miss the playoffs again, the partisans will be much less forgiving than Father Murray.