Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What to do with Kovy?

I think Alex Kovalev could be the best puck handler in the NHL. I've seen those DVD clips...you know the ones...where he whips the puck between obstacles at lightning speed, weaving complicated patterns and never losing it. I've seen him flick the puck one-handed into the top corner of the net. And I've seen him bounce it like a paddle-ball and bat it out of the air right into the net from centre ice. That's why I think he could be the best puck handler in the NHL.

The reason why I think he may not be the best puck handler in the NHL is because on the DVD, he does all those crazy tricks with empty nets and between stationary objects. The problem with that is that in real games, there's a goalie and a bunch of other players who want to take the puck away from him...and quite often these days, they do. The awful giveaway on the powerplay against Florida on Sunday was perhaps the worst example of what we've become used to seeing from Kovalev four or five times a night. In a typical Kovalev play, he attempted to stickhandle through four Panthers who'd lined up on the blueline, expecting just such a move from him. Naturally, he was stripped of the puck, the Panthers went the other way on a breakaway and scored a shorthanded goal. There are three vital problems with that play, which illustrate why Kovalev is not the same player he was last season.

First, he tried to do everything by himself while his linemates had to hang back waiting to see what he'd do. That eliminates the ability of the team to attack with speed, as Kovalev tends to slow the pace of the game and forces everyone else to stop while he's got the puck. That neutralizes one of the Habs' best assets...their quickness. It also makes it very easy for a team to defend against the Montreal attack. If Kovalev's got the puck, they focus on him and have a high-percentage chance of taking it off him.

Second, once he'd been stripped of the puck, Kovalev had no chance of catching up to cover for his mistake. He's not as fast as he used to be, so when he miscalculates on a dangle, he can't get out of trouble like he could five or six years ago.

And third, it was predictable. The whole Florida team knew Kovalev would attempt to carry the puck into their zone. So did the Habs, the announcers and the blind guy in section 265. Everyone knows what Kovalev will do, and he rarely fools anyone with a quick change of plan. The testament to his tremendous talent is that sometimes he actually manages to pull off his intended move, even with everyone aware of his intentions. But his inclination to make those low-percentage rushes means he's usually dealing with a pretty high failure rate.

I was among the multitudes who really enjoyed Kovalev last year. He worked hard, used his linemates and his great shot and managed a thrill-a-minute just about every night. The impressive things he did outweighed the lousy. This year, there are a lot more scary-bad plays than scary-good. I'm not quite sure if there's any one reason for why that is. He's always been the same player, after all. I recently read a New York Times article about him written in his sophomore year that could have been published yesterday. But I think there's a clue to the explanation in something he said last season when asked about his renaissance.

He said when he needed to find new life in his game, he went back to look at tapes of his rookie year. He realized that back then his feet were constantly moving and he noticed that as he got older, he tended to coast a little more. So, last year he deliberately and consciously got back to moving his feet all the time. It worked, because his contant motion made his stickhandling that much trickier and harder to contain.

This year he's stopped doing that. Notice him on the PP, held up against the right boards, standing still and looking for a play. The opposition has all the time in the world to either block his passing lanes or converge on him and force him to turn the puck over. Notice him in his "office" in the right faceoff circle: Last year, when he got the puck there, it was because he was blasting in from the boards, or across from the slot, and arrived just in time to hit the one-timer. This year, he's standing still there, waiting for a pass. And when he gets it, he hesitates just long enough for the D to block his shot and the goalie to slide across and take those precious three inches away.

The problem is, I don't know if Kovalev can duplicate that kind of physical effort again. He's not getting any younger, he's got chronic knee problems and I'm not sure he wants to end up fading in the playoffs like he did last year. I think he worked harder and more consistently last season than he had for a long time...if ever. When the playoffs arrived, he had nothing left. He's always been a player known for stepping up his game in the post-season, but last season he couldn't do it. Unfortunately, after last year, the team is expecting him to be the guy who carries it.

So here we are at the current dilemma: what does Gainey do with Kovy? Considering his age, his likely salary expectations and cap limitations for next season, I think it's a good bet Gainey won't bring him back for another year. But this year is a different story. After his numbers last season, his reputation and the greed many teams have when it comes to adding offence, Kovalev might bring a decent return if he's traded before the deadline. There's no denying his talent, or that he's actually putting up points this year, regardless of his style of play. But I see Andrei Kostitsyn playing better without him and Tomas Plekanec struggling to play with the One-Man Show. I see the giveaways costing goals against, and the powerplay struggling while Kovalev holds the puck too long or makes cross-ice passes that get intercepted. I also see the team's need for a strong top-six defenceman to replace Brisebois, and I think Kovalev's value could help bring that to the team.

But does his talent trump his liability? I try to picture the team without him, and it's tough. Because just when you think you can't take him anymore...that one more lousy giveaway will drive you demented...he picks a corner only he could pick. Or he'll blast a shot from the point that no one sees except the goal judge. I honestly can't decide if he needs to stay or go, and I think Bob Gainey can't either. So while Bob and I waffle on the question, I expect the deadline will come and go and Alex Kovalev will finish this year a Hab. Then he'll give the puck away and cost the team a playoff game and we'll scream about the fact that Gainey should have traded him at the deadline for a defenceman.

But there you go. That's life with Alex. The guy who might be the best puck handler in the league.

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