After his dreadful, disappointing two seasons as a member of the Ottawa Senators, few hockey fans seriously imagined Alex Kovalev would ever return to the National Hockey League.
Even Kovalev himself figured it was all over.
“There was a really low percentage that I thought I would be back, but I worked hard for it,” said Kovalev, comfortably holding court in the Florida Panthers dressing room before the Senators’ home opener Monday. “I still love this game, I enjoy being on the ice.”
Amid all the other storylines on display Monday — including the home debut of Erik Karlsson’s new partner, Marc Méthot, and the return of his old defence mate, Filip Kuba — Kovalev’s presence in the building was the most intriguing development.
Shockingly, Kovalev found himself near the top of the NHL scoring race following Florida’s season opener, scoring one goal and two assists in a 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday, looking at home alongside young linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller. Huberdeau hadn’t been born when Kovalev — now a month shy of 40 — made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers.
When the Panthers offered Kovalev a tryout when the lockout ended, it seemed like a long-shot.
As naturally gifted as Kovalev has been during a career that includes 1,304 career games, he appeared to be more trouble than he was worth. With a long history of clashes with coaches behind him, it hardly seemed like an ideal fit.
Kovalev hadn’t played anywhere during the lockout and played a mere 22 games with Moscow Oblast Atlant of the Kontinental Hockey League in 2011-12, scoring one goal and five assists.
On top of that, Kovalev’s two-year tenure with the Senators was marked by inconsistency, extended periods of floating and a year-long feud with former coach Cory Clouston. Kovalev failed to live up to the expectations of his two-year, $10 million contract — he had 14 goals and 13 assists in 54 games with the Senators in 2010-11, before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins — never coming close to the production of Dany Heatley, the player he was brought in to replace.
The way Kovalev spun it Monday, Clouston’s relationship with veteran players was to blame.
“He is a coach that had a lot to learn,” said Kovalev. “He achieved a lot (in junior), but he has a lot to learn. We had a lot of players who had been in the league for a long period of time. It’s not an easy job to do. It sometimes works, sometimes not, but the main idea for me …(with Mike) Keenan and all those experienced coaches, it’s about their communication with players, coming to players and telling them what it is, how they have to play.”
There’s something to that — defenceman Sergei Gonchar never adapted to Clouston’s hard edge, but rebounded last season under Paul MacLean — but then again, Kovalev’s on-again, off-again motivation forced countless other coaches to throw their arms up in frustration throughout his career.
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen knew the background, but he says Kovalev looks fresh in the second coming of his NHL career.
“He has been great, right from the first day of training camp, extremely professional and he worked really hard without a contract,” said Dineen.
Dineen says Kovalev arrived in tip-top shape following workouts in New York and when camp ended, he was rewarded with a one-year, $1.3 million contract.
His natural abilities have never been questioned. Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson says Kovalev is the most talented player the Senators have ever had.
“After playing with Kovy, nothing he does will ever surprise you,” said Jason Spezza. “He’s a really talented guy who can work magic out there. I can’t say I’m surprised (by his quick start).”
But can it really last? Will the new Kovalev be any different from the guy who has played in fits and starts for the past two decades, causing such distress among NHL coaches?
For what it’s worth, Kovalev says he has felt refreshed by being back in NHL arenas, taking time to take it all in.
“I have nothing to prove, but I’m just enjoying that feeling of winning and hopefully, we can be a part of the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup again. There’s still motivation, there’s still something I’m looking forward to.”
A HOME OPENER AND A HOMECOMING ALL IN ONE
There was quite the Ottawa flavour on the blue lines Monday. Marc Méthot, Erik Karlsson’s new defence partner, was doing his best Monday morning to ignore the flood of emails and texts wishing him well in his home debut and he guessed Scotiabank Place was filled with “a couple of hundred people I actually know.”
Meanwhile, Filip Kuba, Karlsson’s old partner, was back in his old stomping grounds for the first time since signing as a free agent with Florida and is now paired with Brian Campbell, the former Ottawa 67’s star.
Methot is an open book in comparison to the soft-spoken Kuba, but Karlsson says “even though he didn’t talk much, I picked up a lot from him.” Kuba also attended Karlsson’s wedding in the summer.”
In keeping with the Ottawa defence theme, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen says Erik Gudbranson could be back in the Florida lineup “hopefully early in the next month”. Gudbranson is recovering from a shoulder injury and attended Panthers camp, but is technically listed as “suspended” and not being paid until he’s healthy to return. That’s because his injury resulted from a wakeboarding accident in September and not from hockey-related training. “He’s anxious and excited (to return), but has a little ways to go,” said Dineen.
LUNDIN MAKING STRIDES
Senators coach Paul MacLean says injured defenceman Mike Lundin is expected to have the pins removed from his injured hand this week. The next step is for Lundin to feel comfortable holding a stick … MacLean wasn’t saying whether the team would bring three goaltenders for games in Florida and Tampa Thursday and Friday. How long will they stick with the three-pack? “As long as we have to,” said MacLean. As was the case Saturday, Robin Lehner backed up Craig Anderson on Monday, with Ben Bishop sitting out as a healthy scratch … Lehner and Bishop have spent all season as part of a three-goalie system. Nathan Lawson was with them in Binghamton.