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There are many questions surrounding Alex Kovalev and his tenure in Montreal. He’s been the centrepiece of the Habs resurgence late this season, but his issues for much of the rest of the year have baffled and frustrated many fans, and presumably the staff and management of the Canadiens.

Should Kovalev be kept by the Canadiens, or should he be moved for component(s) that will give the club a little more for longer periods of the season than this enigmatic superstar has provided? His play in recent games has suggested he’s coming out of his winter hibernation and is prepared to start working at the highest level since the games are now
important: something that Kovalev has always done – save his best for the most ‘important’ games.

Thing is, will he stick with the game plan or revert back to the Kovy of old once the new season rolls around.

It should be noted that recent goals by Kovalev probably would not have been scored had he been playing his east-west game rather than the north-south game that coach Carbonneau wants – he wouldn’t have been going to the net. So allowing Kovalev to play his game rather than play the system might have cost us a win or two.

That said, there’s no arguing Kovy’s talents. It’s just a shame that he only shows up for what *he* deems the important games. Wouldn’t it be nice if he felt that every game was important and played the way he did against the Rangers for every game of the season?

There’s lots of Kovy debate, and much of it merited. The big question Habs management has to consider is this: is $4.5M worth the headaches of the season, worth the last minute buying into the system when suddenly he becomes the superstar he’s supposed to be? Or is it
too risky to have a guy who may, next year, decide to start playing three games too late causing the Habs to miss the playoffs?

Personally, that would be the hardest decision I’d have in the off-season if I were the GM. Pitching offers to Markov, Souray, the rest of the FA’s and maybe a UFA or two aren’t really tough choices. It’s what you do with the enigmatic superstar that’s the real key. Would the $4.5M be better spent on another player? What about two players who, combined, bring more points to the Habs than Kovy himself? But what if these two players, while performing great in the regular season, fold like a cheap tent when the games really become important?

There have been times this year when getting rid of Kovy would have been at the top of my list, yet there have been times, particularly recently, when Kovy on the club is one of the main reasons the team is performing as it should. I’ve little doubt that these same thoughts have gone through Gainey’s head dozens of times. Kovy has been mouthy, has called out players in the most negative fashion, has coasted through numerous games, and yet on the other hand has carried the team at times, has motivated some of the kids to do better, and has hit the post more times than I can count – and just in that respect, put half those
posts in the net and he’s over 25 goals and suddenly not looking like quite the season-long donkey.

It’s my opinion, after a long, long consideration of the subject, that Kovy is probably worth keeping, despite his attitude at times and his lack of work ethic for long stretches. But, that’s only if you can surround him with the right people who will motivate him as much as possible, and who can take over when Kovy is more interested in the price of tea in China; Kovy will be successful under the right circumstances. If that’s the case, though, which circumstances are these?

Answer? You have to have at *least* two lines rolling, and you’re better to have three that can put the biscuit in the basket. The point is, the Habs were reliant this season on Kovy being the go-to guy, or at least one of the two go-two men, if you include Koivu. I don’t think Kovalev is built to take on that kind of pressure for long periods. One thing that Carbo did well, mind you, was to keep the two separated because that gives at least the semblance of two attacking lines. Problem is, and this is what most teams figured out, when Kovy doesn’t care, they could put their best on Koivu, and when he got tired, Kovy was blanketed.

Hence the need for multiple scoring threats. As it stands now, Koivu’s line has the ability to make things happen on most shifts against most opponents. The kid line (Higgins, Plekanec, and Kostitsyn) is now starting to gel and control the puck a little more, but most of all they attack the net with vigour consistently – there’s no squirelling off to the sides, they go *to* the net (witness Plekanec’s goal when the three of them broke out and bee-lined to the net). Kovy, ostensibly playing on the fourth line with Lapierre and Latendresse, is now a consistent threat. Which line does the opposition mark out?

The important thing here is that, as the kids have developed, this trend has improved as the year has gone on (with the rather lengthy slump as the exception), and there’s every reason to believe that it will continue next season. Latendresse has shown some wonderful things this season, and he’s merely 19. Lapierre has some offensive instincts, but more important, he gets that puck for Kovy to dish to Latendresse. The kid line has three players, all of whom are improving very quickly now. Koivu’s line, despite his many detractors, will always be a threat because Koivu is a shifty, smart player who makes any linemate better.

So if this trend continues, with perhaps the addition of a UFA, the return of a re-energized Perezhogin (who has not been a failure by any stretch, despite some negative commentary – remember he played on the checking line for the majority of the season), and the continued development of the other kids, I believe that Kovalev will have a strong position on this club next season where he’ll probably have the opportunity to contribute more because he’ll have to do less – if you see my meaning. He’ll get ample powerplay time, and on his regular shift he won’t necessarily have to deal with the opposition’s best defensive unit.

Those are big keys to success.

Most important, though, is to try and get more consistency out of him, and I think that’s only possible by placing him in a position where he can succeed without the weight of Montreal on his shoulders.

Consider the last handful of years for poor Koivu where he was, arguably, the one and only real offensive threat. He always played against the opposition’s best and never had the benefit of real top-quality wingers. Now, as the pressure slowly comes off him and is spread across a wider group of players, he’s putting together numbers that are infinitely
closer to what most people expected of him throughout his career. Koivu doesn’t have to carry this team anymore, and he’s a better player for it. (The only shame of it all is that previous management putzed away his best years surrounding him with the Juha Lind’s and Johan Witehall’s of the NHL – I can only imagine what his production could have been with better players.)

Koivu and Kovalev cannot carry this team on their own – no two players can, not even Gretzky and Messier. Even they had the Kurri’s, Anderson’s and Esa Tikanen’s to support their play. The more one considers it, the more it can be believed that Kovalev will be a huge benefit to the club next season if we extrapolate the improvement of the rest of the club to next year.

In fact, if you want to take the improvement of the club, particularly the kids, as something that has a high likelihood of success, and you want to factor in one free agent signing of quality (or, perhaps, a shocking return to form for Samsonov), then Montreal may very well have three lines that can score at any given time. The potential offensive talent is enough to consider the possibility of placing Koivu and Kovalev on the same line – and still have the kid line going, with Latendresse and that UFA (or Sammy) being a quality scoring threat as well.

I can only see two real reasons to move him, honestly, the first being his attitude which will be interesting to see as this year winds down, and the second being the state of the cap, particularly if re-signing Markov and Souray are priorities, which would seem to be the case, and if they are outrageously expensive.

In the end, it will come down to management’s decision on how well they believe they can surround Kovalev to mitigate his “down time.” If they feel he’s too much of a dead weight that can’t be overcome by the rest of the talent on the team, the Kovalev will be shopped over the summer. If, however, they feel they can work with his flaws to get the best out of him, which I believe is possible considering the Canadiens’ current state, then it’s entirely possible that Kovalev will not only stay, but will have his best season in Montreal.

Of course, there’s one other factor to consider: will the fans and media get on his back so much that, regardless of what happens, he’ll want out? This is the ultimate problem in Montreal and one that our enigmatic superstar may very well have to face.

A Concerned Fan