Alex Kovalev played the equivalent of Russian roulette with his NHL career. And lost.
Kovalev rolled the dice when he didn’t accept a two-year offer from Canadiens’ General Manager Bob Gainey to return to the Habs. Gainey had made it clear, by offering up a deal prior to the start of the free agent season, that he wanted to see Kovalev back. And Kovalev had made it clear that he wanted to return to Montreal, a city that embraced him in a very big way. Interesting to note that, when it became clear that neither Kovalev nor long-time team captain Saku Koivu fit in the team’s long-term plans, hockey fans in this city threw their vocal and emotional support behind Kovalev in an effort to get Gainey to change his mind, while Koivu’s departure was a much more subdued affair.
But Kovalev blew it. And he admitted as much yesterday while taking part in his annual fundraising golf tournament in Montreal.
Kovalev figured, even with all that mileage under his NHL belt, that he was still good for a long-term contract on the open market.
He was wrong. And he paid the price. Not a financial price, but an emotional price.
In fact, when all was said and done, Kovalev discovered that no one was willing to invest three or four years and upwards of $16 million in a 36-year old player who, for all the talent that he possses, fails to bring it — game in, and game out.
As that reality began to sink in, and the doors began to close on Alex Kovalev, he settled for a two-year offer from the Ottawa Senators.
“It would have been a bad decision if we didn’t sign with Ottawa,” said Kovalev yesterday. “We already understood that nobody would sign me for more than a year or two.”
However, by the time that reality sank in, Gainey had already moved on and invested dollars in players like Brian Gionta.
Are the Montreal Canadiens are better team with Brian Gionta, and without Alex Kovalev?
That remains be seen.
In his five years in Montreal, Kovalev lived up to his billing only once, two years ago, when he led the Habs to a first place finish in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Gionta? He’s a former 48-goal scorer. But that was four years ago. His totals have slipped steadily to the point where he’s struggling to be a 20-goal man.
Both players have much to prove this season. Gionta will get that chance in Montreal, playing with former teammate Scott Gomez. Kovalev will get his opportunity, in Ottawa, whether he likes it or not.
But number 27 did not shut the door on a possible return to the Canadiens.
“One day, maybe after two years, I’ll be back again. It would definitely be nice to retire here.”
If the Canadiens will have him.
In the meantime, Bob Gainey has been busy signing some of the younger players who need to step up and fill the void left by the departure of veterans like Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Tom Kostopoulos.
I’m talking about Gregory Stewart, Kyle Chipchura and Matt D’agostini.
Does Stewart have the grit to provide the sandpaper that had been provided by the likes of Kostopoulos and Steve Begin? He hasn’t shown me that, so far, in his very young NHL career.
Can Chipchura step up and become an effective third-line centre? This will surely be the last kick at the can in Montreal for the former first-round draft pick.
Does D’agostini have the offensive finish and the wheels to become a top-six forward? We saw that from him, initially, when called up from Hamilton last season. Much less of it, however, as the season progressed.
Just some of the questions that will be answered beginning in two weeks, when the Canadiens take to the ice Sept. 10 for the start of training camp.