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1. One that is puzzling, ambiguous, or inexplicable

Alexei Kovalev is one of the most talented offensive players of his generation. There is not a player in the NHL who is a better stick handler. Along with a wide array of moves, and a hard, accurate shot, he possesses a skill set unique to the NHL.

Alexei Kovalev, finished 134th in league scoring last year with 47 points.

So why the difference between Kovalev’s potential and his production? That is the $4.5 million dollar question in Montreal. If anyone knows the answer, please contact Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey, and head coach Guy Carbonneau, because they each spent last year searching for the answer, without success.

In addition to his talent, Alexei Kovalev is the most mysterious of all the Montreal Canadiens. His thoughts are closely guarded, his feelings hidden deep below the surface, and his talent, appears briefly, never consistently, and disappears for long stretches of time, without reason, and with no logical explanation.

When the Canadiens acquired Kovalev from the New York Rangers on March 12th, 2004 big things were expected. Hailed by many writers and pundits as the most skilled player in Montreal for many years, Kovalev did not immediately impress, managing only 3 points in the last 12 games of the season.

This level of doubt only increased in the first round of the playoffs as the Montreal fell behind the Bruins 3 games to 1. It was only over the next three games that the doubters were temporarily silenced. Led by Kovalev, the Canadiens were able to rally and win three straight games to eliminate the Bruins. And even though the Canadiens fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the eventual champions, in the next round, one could only applaud the play of Kovalev, after he recorded 16 points in Montreal’s 11 playoff games.

During the next year, the year of the lockout, Kovalev played in the Russian Super League. After the season he represented Russia in the 2005 World Championships, where he would be named the tournament’s most valuable forward.

As an unrestricted free agent, Kovalev surprised many by signing a four year contract with the Canadiens that paid him $4.5 million per season. Regarded at the time as a pivotal time in Bob Gainey’s stewardship of the team, the signing is now seen, with the benefit of hindsight, as an over inflated contract for an underachieving player.

In his first full season with the Canadiens, Kovalev contributed a respectable 65 points, averaging close to a point a game in the regular season (he played in 69 games), and adding 7 points in a six game first round playoff loss to the eventual champion Carolina Hurricanes.

Kovalev further endeared himself to Montreal fans by purchasing a Bell Centre suite for underprivileged and sick children to be able to watch games at his expense (continuing a tradition begun four years ago by the now departed Jose Theodore).

And then the bottom fell out during the 2006-07 season. Kovalev never seemed to gain a level of consistency during the course of the season. He was only able to show flashes of his brilliant play, but these instances became far and few between, as the season progressed. As Coach Carbonneau struggled in vain, trying anything to spark Kovalev, the situation went from bad to worse.

Then Kovalev’s injuries troubles began, at the worst possible time for the Canadiens, who found themselves in a dogfight to make the playoffs. First there was the elbow injury on February 26th, causing Kovalev to miss 7 games, and then the mysterious case of vertigo on March 17th, resulting in him missing two more games.

By this point the media’s frustration had taken a venomous tone. After hailing him as a star upon his arrival in Montreal, the press had now turned on him, as they began to question the validity of his injuries.

Soon, however, they were questioning his word.

Reportedly, in an interview given to a Russian reporter, Kovalev voiced his criticism of Carbonneau’s coaching, claiming he discriminated against the Russian players. He also spoke of his concerns about his younger teammates and their seemingly inflated heads, resulting in a dressing room full of kliqs.

In spite of Kovalev’s denials, and despite the person he gave the interview to claiming that the comments were never uttered, the damage had been done. Combined with Kovalev’s disdain for the Montreal media (especially the French contingent) a frenzy ensued.

All this commotion couldn’t have helped a team struggling to make the playoffs, but somehow the Canadiens found themselves in the driver’s seat with two games remaining in the season. Needing just one win, the Canadiens set out to New York and Toronto to finish the season.

In the two most important games of the Canadiens season, Kovalev was a minus four; he had two shots against the Rangers, none against the Leafs, and was benched for the third period in Toronto, as Montreal watched their playoff dreams disappear.

Since the Canadiens last game and continuing into the summer the Alexei Kovalev situation still seems unresolved. With a $4.5 million dollar contract with 2 years remaining, it appears that Kovalev has become an untradeable player.

It seems that for the foreseeable future that the Canadiens and Kovalev are stuck with each other. This brings up the most obvious question, what the Canadiens can expect from Kovalev next year.

Unfortunately, for Montreal fans the answer may be more of what we’ve already seen.

Last year, in a season regarded by all as being below expectations, Alexei Kovalev scored 18 goals and had 47 points.

For his fifteen year NHL career, Alexei Kovalev has averaged 24 goals a year, and averaged 57 points a year.

Unfortunately, Kovalev’s sub par season isn’t far off from his career average.

In taking a closer look at Kovalev’s career one is struck by how little he has accomplished in his fifteen year NHL career.

Only once has he led his team in scoring (the 2001-02 Pittsburgh Penguins).
He has never scored fifty goals or produced 100 points in any season.
He has only played in two all star games.
He has been selected as the Canadiens player of the month only once in his 2 plus years in Montreal.

Kovalev’s best season statistically came with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000-01 when he finished fourth in league scoring with 95 points, and fifth in goal scoring with 44 goals.

For that year Kovalev was paired with Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka. Jagr with 121 points that year won the scoring title, and Straka finished with a point total identical to Kovalev’s 95.

Coincidentally, both Kovalev and Straka have failed to match those point totals since. This makes one question if his numbers were a product of his talent or if they were inflated because of the presence of Jagr.

Clearly, Kovalev’s level of play is dependent on how gifted his line mates are. And while this is true of all NHL forwards, not all are as dependent as him. With gifted line mates he can carry a team, without them he can be invisible. The drop off is that significant.

With all of that being said it seems apparent that Kovalev needs to have Saku Koivu as the center on his line. When did Kovalev look his best in Montreal? When did he look the most like the elite player the Canadiens expect? The answer lies in the 2004 playoffs when he was centered by Saku Koivu.

And while critics will look at a line of Kovalev, Koivu, and probably Michael Ryder and cringe at their collective play in their own end, they must realize that all of these players are paid to put the puck in net. And if the Canadiens are going to improve next year, they will require more offense, and from especially, Alexei Kovalev.

It’s not hard to see what tempted Bob Gainey into trading for, and then resigning Kovalev. When on full display his talent is enormous. But as some of his previous employers will attest, it is these glimpses of greatness that can be maddening and frustrating. Because, far too often the glimpse is gone as soon as it was shown, and one never knows when or where it will be seen again.