By now the word has hit the entire NHL. With the constant discussion going on about the future of superstar Brad Richards in a Dallas uniform, focus has begun to shift from the highly-touted center to a brooding veteran on a team that is going seemingly nowhere.
Alex Kovalev has bounced back and forth across the NHL for the past two decades, finding a home and some love for only brief periods before a franchise becomes disenchanted with the Russian and grants him his freedom. This year's model, the Ottawa Senators, are doing something that no team has done with Kovalev previously.
After inking Kovalev to a two-year, $10 million deal in 2009, Kovalev has sunk production-wise and found himself in the crossfire of a heated battle with coach Cory Clouston. Just a week ago, Kovalev was bumped to the fourth line of a team that is struggling to stay anywhere near competitive.
What's worse, the Senators are clearly showing Alex the writing on the wall as we rapidly approach midseason and the pending February trade deadline.
The Sens are up against the cap wall, currently saddled with three $5 million-plus contracts for three 35-plus players (including Kovalev).
The goaltending situation is chaotic on both the ice and in the office as Ottawa struggles to find the right fit between Brian Elliott and Pascal Leclaire. Both are due to be free agents in one respect or another (Elliott an RFA, Leclaire a UFA) this summer.
Compounding this are several mid-level forwards that themselves are underachieving despite handsome paychecks for years to come. While the Sens should have ample wiggle room in the offseason (somewhere in the market of $17 million), they are currently looking like a team with no direction or aspirations towards greatness.
Kovalev may well be the poster boy for this stagnant turn. With just seven goals in his first 32 games this year, Kovalev is only the second most disappointing Russian in the NHL (Alex Frolov's five goals in as many games are the biggest bust). He was demoted to the fourth line by Clouston on December 9th in a game that the Senators lost thanks to poor third period against the New York Rangers.
Despite threats from Clouston and management that his play could have him benched, Kovalev's ice time picked up just a few days later versus New Jersey and again on Monday against Atlanta. Needless to say, the value for Kovalev in Ottawa has worn pretty thin, yet he may prove to be a valuable asset to several franchises in the home stretch.
Kovalev started with the New York Rangers and won a Stanley Cup with the team in 1994, a year that was arguably his best on broadway. But the Rangers became disenchanted with "Give it away, Alexei" and promptly shipped him to Pittsburgh in an effort to capture more glory.
For the next few years, Kovalev experienced the biggest upswing in his career by playing with Mario Lemieux and company while posting 44 goals and 51 assists in his career-best year of 2000-2001. But soon, with much larger issues plaguing the money-strapped Pens, Kovalev was shipped back to the Rangers in a massive deal.
One team implosion and fire sale later, Kovalev found himself playing in Montreal for the first time in his career. Early on, he was a solid contributor that, much like he had before, became invisible on the score sheet and had the team contemplating just what to do with his expensive contract.
Luckily for Kovalev, in 2007-2008, he had a comeback year like no other and helped escalate the Habs to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the league's best power play.
One season later, his numbers dipped slightly and he was again part of a massive exodus at the hands of Montreal GM Bob Gainey. This time, though, he had massive company as Gainey let 10 unrestricted free agents walk out the door.
Surprisingly enough, Kovalev found himself a new home in Ottawa, bringing us to where we are today. The Senators are struggling to stay afloat and Kovalev's numbers have dipped significantly from his days in Pittsburgh, Montreal, and even early on in New York. For the fourth time in his career, it appears as if Alex Kovalev will be on the mood so a club can save some cash for the future.
Here comes the fun part. What team, of the other 29 NHL franchises still very much aware of the Kovalev situation, would be willing to take a chance on the forward? Sometimes old habits die hard, especially if you're the Penguins or Rangers.
Pittsburgh has added a top six winger a few times in their quest for the Cup over the last few seasons. Though none of those wingers stayed with the team after the season concluded, there is no question that Kovalev played the best hockey of his career for the Pens and within a Mario Lemieux regime.
The Penguins, despite being the NHL's hottest and best team, are still relatively thin up front beyond names like Crosby and Malkin and will have a lot of holes to fill come July 1st.
For now, Kovalev's cap hit wouldn't hurt them considering he'd likely take a salary cut once the offseason arrives. And just imagine what kind of spark he could provide if he were matched up with Malkin or Crosby. Kovalev just broke the 1,000-point mark for his career and he's still reminiscing about his point per game production from the years he spent in Pittsburgh.
The Rangers, ever a candidate to acquire any name thrown into the great wide open, are a less likely destination but shouldn't be counted out given Glen Sather's history. After all, this is the man who traded to get Kovalev BACK in New York and actively fought to do it a second time a few years ago.
Imagining Kovalev back in a Rangers uniform would still cost New York one of its up and coming prospects, but at the same time, they may be able to shed Alex Frolov's ineptitude for the small risk of rejuvenating Kovalev's career for the third time. Still, the Rangers couldn't possibly do something this crazy, could they?
Other options, especially out West, present themselves nicely for Kovalev and the Senators. In both St. Louis and Phoenix, the need for an extra veteran presence on the front lines could be welcomed by two team officials who were high on Kovalev from his days in New York. St. Louis President John Davidson and Phoenix GM Don Maloney vividly recall better days for Alex and likely know where to put him to be effective.
One final option, the Los Angeles Kings, seems to be in the works. While the Kings may still be hammering out their Marco Sturm deal, that doesn't mean they've concluded the search for an impactful winger. Giving Kovalev the opportunity to play on a line with someone as gifted as Anze Kopitar may just give L.A. the kind of legitimacy they strive for.
For the Seantors, all five of these options are more reasonable than keeping Kovalev sulking on the bench. Time and time again, Ottawa management forgets to pull the trigger and misses out what could be a franchise-altering deal.
Kovalev's contract is not the only one they can move now for a better tomorrow, but it certainly is the one that has to be moved if this team wants to eventually climb out of the darkness and into the light.
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