“I’m trying to do my best every year”

Alex Kovalev after a scuffle during a game last March. Kovy never lacked for confidence, and he was brimming with it as training camp opened last fall.
John Kenney, Gazette

The Canadiens had come off an Eastern Conference championship in 2007-08, led in large part by the second-best season lifetime of forward Alex Kovalev.

Montreal went two rounds into the playoffs before bowing out to Philadelphia.

The Habs reassembled for last autumn’s training camp with high hopes of taking the next step in their 100th season. We all know how it turned out. Now Kovalev is gone, to Ottawa for two years and $10 million.

Captain Saku Koivu is entertaining offers elsewhere, his days in Montreal done barring a remarkable about-face by his employer since 1995. Other familiar faces are gone, with new ones on the way in.

It’s always fun – or enlightening, anyway – to dig into the files at a time like this. Below is a feature on Kovalev written on the first day of last autumn’s training camp.

Kovalev, 8-10 pounds lighter and eager to crank up his game beyond the excellent season he’d just enjoyed, was asked whether he could find any other Canadien who reminded him of himself maybe a decade earlier, with the same fire in the eyes and the belly.

“No,” he replied. “Not even close.”

So here’s Kovalev last September, on the first day of training camp.

Habs season hinges on Kovalev
Resurgent Russian’s performance will go a long way in determining club’s fortunes in 2008-09

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette
Published Sept. 22, 2008

Alex Kovalev has never compared himself with any other player in the National Hockey League. Now, heading into his 16th season, he’s not about to start.

The talk in every corner about the 2008-09 Canadiens is of the possibilities. Of the encore, at the very least, that’s expected of last season’s Eastern Conference champion that skated two rounds deep into the playoffs – a satisfying and unfulfilling postseason.

Kovalev has won a Stanley Cup in New York. He’s played on some thoroughbred clubs and some nags, and been magnificent and median through three seasons in Montreal.

His leadership last season was recognized by head coach Guy Carbonneau, who put the captain’s “C” on his No. 27 jersey when Saku Koivu missed one game with the flu and nine more with a broken foot.

Kovalev has seen it all in hockey, so you wonder aloud to him: Is there anyone in the Canadiens dressing room today who even remotely reminds him of himself say a decade ago, a young stud who has the same fire in the eyes and the belly?

“No,” he says, grinning tightly. “Not even close.”

Confidence and sense of self are not among the qualities Kovalev was short-changed, and both played starring roles in his dramatic resurgence last season.

From a 40-watt 2006-07 – “disappointing,” he ranks it, because 18 goals and 29 assists should be his output after 50 games, not the 73 he played – to last year’s 1,000-watt campaign, his 84 points the second-best production of his career.

From a minus-17 rating to plus-18, with a team-leading 11 playoff points.

Kovalev captured the Molson Cup in a rout, winning four of six

segments for the prize awarded for Canadiens’ three-star selections.

All of which, of course, is yesterday’s news, because what he does this season will largely determine the Canadiens’ ultimate destination next spring.

“Anything’s possible,” Kovalev said at the start of this training camp.

“It’s not like I’m going to say to you that I’m going to make 90, 100 points. I’m going to try to do my best, that’s all I can say. I’ll hopefully elevate my game to a different level. That’s the only way there’s a possibility to win the Stanley Cup.”

The 35-year-old from Togliatti, Russia, said his stellar season was not meant to prove anything to anyone, since he long ago gave up on that.

“I’ve already proven enough in my career,” Kovalev said, having authored 368 goals and 508 assists through 1,073 regular-season games with the Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, with whom he broke into the NHL at age 19.

“People know who I am and what I’m capable of. I’m trying to do my best every year. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not. It’s up to me to change things and make them better, and that’s what I did last year. It happened.”

Almost certainly, head coach Guy Carbonneau will begin the season with Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn flanking centre Tomas Plekanec, who formed the Canadiens’ most prolific line last season.

But with the Kostitsyn brothers unable to travel to Detroit on Wednesday because of visa problems, look for Kovalev, newcomer Robert Lang and Guillaume Latendresse on a line in the Motor City. The three practised together on the weekend.

And Kovalev might well this season take the departed Mark Streit’s spot on a power-play point.

“I’m ready for any position they want to use me,” he said, reminding that power-play ace Streit, like Sheldon Souray before him, is not irreplaceable.

“It definitely would be nice to be reunited (with Lang). He’s a great player who can do power-play, penalty-kill, pretty much anything.”

(Indeed, Kovalev, Lang and Martin Straka all enjoyed their best NHL seasons in 2000-01, their line combining for 103 goals and 270 points in Pittsburgh.)

“But I don’t make the (line) decisions and we have a good chemistry with Kostitsyn and Plekanec. It’s good to have options, more than we had last year, with the additions (of Lang, Alex Tanguay and Georges Laraque). It should be easy to not worry about who’s going to be playing in certain situations.”

He joked – or didn’t – that he’ll slip the veteran Laraque, “a strong guy who has some skills,” a copy of his instructional DVD “to teach him some of the tricks.

“The young guys have to step up and show that last year was not an accident. Two years ago, when we didn’t make (the 2006-07) playoffs, everybody came in for training camp not sure what kind of team we’d have or what we could do. We should be more positive now.”

Are the Canadiens a better team than last year?

“That’s what we’re going to find out.”

Kovalev will grip his stick with a new look this season, sporting uniquely crafted AK27 gloves whose airplane logo celebrates his love of the twin-engine Cessna he pilots. And it’s quite possible his skates will resemble retracted landing gear – he reported to camp with 10 pounds shaved off the 224 he carried last year.

“These days people are saying I’m too slow,” he joked – or didn’t – seemingly poured into a Moscow Country Club golf shirt. “So I’ve got to keep up with the young guys, get some speed somewhere.

“I feel a little quicker, more comfortable. … The older you get, you know how much shape you’re losing and the more (offseason) time you spend running, jumping. When you were a young kid, you didn’t have to worry about it as much.”

Kovalev is one of 10 Canadiens eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next July. Like the rest, he says he has more immediate concerns than talking contract.

“Not now,” he said of any meeting with general manager Bob Gainey. “We have to concentrate on the season. We’ll talk later. As long as I can play a full season and have a successful year, for my team and for me personally, that’s all I worry about.

“I still enjoy this hockey. That’s why I’m still playing and why I love to be here. I’ve said it many times, it’s a lot easier playing in front of a crowd that understands hockey, who are really passionate about hockey.

“And that’s what this town is all about. There’s nothing better than winning the Stanley Cup. I won it in New York (in 1994), but that is going to be nothing compared to Montreal.”

Nothing conditional. No “should” or “if” the Canadiens win. Just a frank statement from Kovalev, a player who speaks no other way, and confidence from a veteran who has that market cornered.


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