Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Alex Kovalev: A Misunderstood Artist Says Goodbye

Alex Kovalev, l’Artiste, The Enigma, AK-27, Alexei Kovalev, Kovy – the man has been known by many different names in his 20-year NHL career.  Today though, he gets a different designation; retired.  After scoring 430 goals and 1029 career points in 1316 games with the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Florida Panthers, Alex Kovalev has finally decided to hang up his skates at 40 years of age.

Kovalev’s career will be one that is hard for many analysts to define.  One of the most sublimely talented players I have ever seen, and one of the most purely talented players of his era, Kovalev always left you asking if he could do more with those skills.  Kovy was blessed with so many skills.  He could stickhandle in a phone booth, had an incredible wrist shot and lightning quick release to go with great vision and passing skills.  The Russian played with a power forward’s body.  Indeed, there were many nights where he looked unstoppable, and was clearly the best player in the rink.  The perplexing thing about him is that there were also too many nights where he didn’t show off those skills, or didn’t use them as effectively as he could have.  Basically many feel he underachieved.  At times, watching Alex Kovalev was frustrating for fans, media, coaches, and fellow teammates.

All that being said, there are some misconceptions about Alex Kovalev.  Misconceptions that I hope this article can clear up.

Misconception 1: Kovalev was lazy and when he wasn’t scoring it was due to lack of effort

I will concede there were certainly times where he may have taken a night or two off through his playing days – okay, maybe more than one or two.  What I will argue, however, is that it happened with far less frequency than pundits claim.

When Kovalev went through slumps, especially late in his career, the issue often had very little to do with effort.  Instead, his issue had more to do with not playing smart hockey.  I can remember numerous games when media criticized Kovalev for a lack of effort, when nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, a typical play would involve Kovalev deking through two defenders, and then attempting to deke through a third before coughing up the puck, creating a turnover with the puck heading the other way.  That play at times seemed “typical” Kovalev, and because it happened with enough frequency it became part of his identity.  His unwillingness to use his linemates and his attempts to beat the other team with individual efforts were not smart hockey, but again that is also not caused by lack of effort.

Make no mistake, I’m not defending his play here, just that lack of effort was not always what created problems for Kovalev. An individual play where he would try to deke through three or four defenders is not lack of effort, in fact, I’d call it the opposite; trying to do too much by himself, with no regard to his linemates and their ability to help him.

This is not to absolve Kovalev from the claims that he was an underachiever.  There is little doubt that he was exactly that.  However it is to say that the reasons for his underachieving were far too often misdiagnosed.

Misconception 2: Kovalev didn’t show up in Big Games

This is one misconception where a simple look at a few stats would show that Kovalev was actually at his best in the biggest games.  The stats show that he actually did better in the playoffs than he did in the regular season.  Considering that scoring in general goes down in the playoffs vs the regular season, it really is quite remarkable (and rare) when we see players who score at a greater PPG average in the playoffs than they do in the regular season.

Career Goals Per Game: 0.33 in the regular season, 0.37 in the playoffs
Career Points Per Game: 0.78 in the regular season, 0.81 in the playoffs

But really it comes down to more than just career stats.  Let’s look at some of Kovalev’s best performances:

In 1994, Kovalev was a 2nd year NHL player, playing for the New York Rangers.  It was his first NHL playoff appearance.  In 23 games, Kovalev scored 21 points and was a major secondary scoring force for the Rangers in helping them to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.  He finished third in playoff scoring on that Rangers team behind only Hall of Famers Brian Leetch and Mark Messier.

Going forward, Kovalev wouldn’t be part of a team that lost in the first round of the NHL playoffs until the 2005-06 season, and incredible run of 12 years without being part of a first round playoff loser.  When Kovalev’s teams advanced, his ability to score was usually a big reason why.  Which brings us to our next misconception…

Misconception 3: Kovalev faked an injury and cost the Canadiens’ in the Playoffs vs the Bruins.

The replay has been shown on Sportscentre numerous times in the last decade.  Alex’s Kovalev’s blunder in Game 4 of the 2004 NHL Playoff series that led to Glen Murray’s Overtime winner and cost the Habs the game:

It’s true, the play cost the Canadiens the game and led to the Bruins taking a 3-1 series lead. However, what is often forgotten is Kovalev’s performances in the next three games. Scoring 8 points in those games, Kovalev led the Canadiens to three straight victories, erasing Boston’s advantage, and leading Les Glorieux to the series victory. It’s the second half of the story, the part where Kovalev redeems himself, that never makes it to the highlight shows and is rarely, if ever told by the analysts.

So how should history remember Alex Kovalev?  Is he a hall of famer?

Unfortunately for Kovalev fans, he’s not a Hall of Famer.  Despite over 400 career goals and 1000 points it quite simply doesn’t add up to enough to be Hall-Worthy.  Add to it no major individual awards in his career, and the reputation that he didn’t show up every night, and there is little chance he makes it to the Hall.

That said, Kovalev fans should remember his gifts on the ice, and the many great plays he made. I leave you with a couple of videos, one that illustrates his talent level, and a second that is quite simply one of my favorite memories of his NHL career:

Feel free to add your comments below.

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