Pittsburgh Penguins: Kovalev Comments & Bylsma's Challenge to Accommodate Malkin

James ConleyContributor IIIAugust 10, 2011

Malkin's talent and resumé should be enough to preclude him from compromising his style to resemble that of a fourth-liner.
Malkin's talent and resumé should be enough to preclude him from compromising his style to resemble that of a fourth-liner.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Alex Kovalev, he of the new two-year deal with the KHL's Atlant Mytischi, recently spoke with Pavel Lysenkov of Sovetsky Sport on his new deal, his time in Ottawa and his NHL career as a whole (translated here by Puck Daddys' Dmitry Chesnokov).

The interview is revealing for fans of Kovalev or the Ottawa Senators. Pittsburgh fans will be interested in Kovy's take on his most recent and perhaps final NHL stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

His comments seems to affirm what Penguins fans have known about their coach for some time now.

Via Puck Daddy,

Lysenkov: You were then traded to the Penguins, where Malkin and Crosby didn't play due to injuries. Why didn't it work out there?

Kovalev: Everything was fine. I had played for Pittsburgh before. The atmosphere doesn't change there. But my style didn't fit with the game coach Dan Byslma was implementing. There is nothing else to explain it with.

Given that Kovalev minced no words when asked about former Senators coach Cory Clouston or the Canadian media, it seems he sincerely had no issue with Dan Bylsma or the Penguins, though things ultimately didn't work out.

As cordial as the relationship might have been, Kovalev still had no chance of succeeding in Pittsburgh.

Kovalev might still be one of the most skilled players in hockey, but didn't have the motor to keep up with the Penguins' rigid system, whether due to age, conditioning or the perceived laziness he speaks against in the interview.

There was no chance of shoehorning an aging Kovalev into the Penguins' firecracker system. The deal was made perhaps because it offered almost no loss risk. For the cost of a seventh-round pick (the final round of the NHL entry draft), Kovalev offered a great deal of talent.

Spit in any direction, though, and you'll be sure to land on talent. Those in the big offices of CONSOL Energy Center realize this and have taken pains to create a top-to-bottom system that demands and covets work ethic moreso than flash, skill or talent.

Penguins fans have seen the departure of a number of highly skilled player who couldn't make the cut when it came to playing hard-nose hockey.

Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan, Petr Sykora—these were established NHL talents before they came to Pittsburgh.

Each left the city looking thoroughly defeated in their final games with the team.

This mantra is not just a product of Dan Bylsma's preferences as a coach. General Manager Ray Shero is the man pulling the trigger on personnel deals, and that includes the contract extension given to Byslma.

So far, the Penguins have been able to cover the departure of talent by working hard within their systems, and the system has bent for no player.

As fine a mantra as it may seem, there are, or ought to be, exceptions.

Namely, Evgeni Malkin.

For two seasons, the system has seemingly hampered Evgeni Malkin's ability to play like one of the world's finest. While Pittsburgh has no precedent of compromising its plan to suit one player, perhaps Malkin's resumè should make them reconsider.

The 2009 Art Ross Trophy, 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy and $8.7 million annual salary ought to be enough to spur an exception in the system, if not the very obvious point that Malkin is more effective when he is able to play within himself.

A product of the Russian Super League, Malkin is a swift skater, tends to carry the puck for long periods of time, shows a preference for finesse over power. He plays a European brand of hockey.

The Penguins do not.

Dan Bylsma and assistant coaches Todd Reirden and Tony Granato are products of North America, where the game is played close to the vest, fast, replete with the hard hitting and backchecking that is not typical to European hockey.

To accommodate their plan, Shero has made a point of acquiring hard-nosed, less-skilled players of that ilk. It's why men like Tyler Kennedy and Craig Adams are awarded two-year extensions while established, but mercurial talents like Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr are shown the door.

To illustrate the point, Malkin is one of only two European players on the Penguins roster. Zbynek Michalek, a defenseman, is the other.

In the interview with Lysenkov, Kovalev shed some light on the difference between European and North American hockey.

Lysenkov: [Concerning Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov's time in Russia] The move from America to Russia is not always easy.

Kovalev: That's the whole point. I don't agree with those who say 'He was a cool guy in America, that's why he will now beat everyone in the KHL wearing just one skate.

When you have played almost your entire career on small rinks, it's not that easy to move to the big ice. The game is absolutely different in Russia, a different mentality.

Some get used to it quickly. It takes others a lot of time.

Coming from Kovalev, the points may or may not be valid. Unlike Kovalev, Malkin's work ethic hasn't been an area of concern, at least amongst those in the organization.

Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar spent two weeks in Moscow this summer helping Malkin through his knee rehabilitation, and saw no problem with the Russian star's effort.

"I have known ‘Geno’ for five years now and I have never seen him this committed to getting healthier and wanting to do well," said Kadar. "It has been an eye-opener for me with his determination and work ethic.

"He is committed to it every day, and with no short cuts."

Work ethic is not Malkin's problem. While lingering (and major) injuries have cut into his productivity in the two full seasons with Bylsma as coach (as has the total lack of suitably skilled linemates), it seems he is not comfortable playing the crash-bang style of hockey the Penguins have adopted.

Comparing the successes and salaries of Sidney Crosby and Malkin under the system is moot. Crosby is a Canadian and grew up playing this type of hockey.

Malkin will get another chance to regain his Art Ross form this season, and with improved linemates to boot—provided he is healthy—Geno figures to play with some combination of Jordan Staal, James Neal, Steve Sullivan, Dustin Jeffrey or Eric Tangradi this year.

If Malkin is able to register another 100 to 110-point season (and carry another 100 or so points from his linemates), wouldn't the production be worth sacrificing the backchecking, defensive style of hockey, if only for one line?

After all, Malkin led the league in takeaways in 2008-09. Defense should be of no concern if the second line is able to gel and play to Malkin's strengths.

Geno appears to be healthy, and his linemates will be perhaps the best of his career. All that remains is for the coaching staff to let their second $8.7 million man play the game that suits him best.

It worked well in 2009.

James likes hockey. Check out Slew Footers for more on the Penguins and Pittsburgh Sports, or banter with him in 140-character form @slewfooters.


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