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Our version of the Neverending Story concludes with the Neverending Debate about the Enigma, Alexei Kovalev. Is he our best player, our biggest distraction, our best shot at winning it all, or the reason we won't make it past the first 82? Sit back, this could take a while.
The tits – "Gamebreaker". "Can stickhandle in a phone booth." "Dazzling with the puck." "One of the most talented players in the world." All these platitudes have been tossed around when describing Kovalev. He has an astonishing array of moves, tremendous hockey sense, a great wrist shot, and good size. He claims to be a big game performer, and his playoff stats are good. He might be the only Hab who can change a game in one shift. Often serves as captain of the Russian National team, although being the leader of that dysfunctional room is probably like being the president of a Bruins fanclub ... he just acts as a spokesman to the outside world for the rest of the inmates in the asylum. Cool nickname: AK-27. Loves playing in Montreal and came here as a free agent because he loved the buzz the city has. From what I've read, he actually is a very pleasant fellow and goes out of his way to be good to fans.
The cellulite – (Like Kovalev, I'm taking a shift off here. Oh, I'll say something, but it won't be near the effort or result you expect from someone of my genius. You'll be disappointed, because as Habs fans, you appreciate hard work and effort for the "CH" almost as much as pure talent.)
Frankly, with a guy as good as Kovalev could be, his faults aren't cellulite ... they are all armpit hair.
The armpit hair – For all his world class talent, Kovalev always leaves coaches, teammates, and fans wanting so much more. He has severe lapses in concentration that almost always result in bad things happening. He's lazy defensively, and if he wasn't, it might not matter anyway because he's lousy defensively too. He takes shifts off. He spouts off to the media about his coach and creates rifts in the dressing room. He often makes one too many of his slick moves and loses the puck, which results in more bad things happening. He spends too much time on the perimeter for a guy who is listed at 6'2, 220 pounds. If he's not making plays and helping his linemates, he actually seems to bring entire trios down. Last year his "effort" essentially kneecapped the second line for sixth months. Nagging injuries are starting to pile up because he's played 15 years of pro hockey. Everyone talks about Kovalev's mind-blowing skills, but he's less than a point-per-game player both in the regular season and the playoffs, and his career highs of 44 goals, 51 assists and 95 points all came when he played on a line with some guy named Mario Lemiuex. You know, the same Mario Lemieux who got 40 goals out of Warren Young and 49 out of Rob Brown.
In the VIP room – After seven years with the Rangers, Kovalev got dealt to the Penguins for another mercurial talent in Petr Nedved. Five years later, the Pens were so desparate to unload him they shipped him and three other players back to New York for a package highlighted by Mikael Samuelson and Rico Fata. Almost exactly a year later, the Rangers handed him to the Habs for Josef Balej and a 2nd rounder. There is undeniable talent in Kovalev; he was the first Russian ever selected in the first round of the NHL draft and one of the first three to get his name on the Cup in 1994 (when he finished with 21 points in 23 playoff games). The Rangers would never have won that Cup without his contributions. He could end up being a terrific mentor/playmaker/gamebreaker for Kostitsyn and Grabovski if they remain as his linemates. He'll continue to amaze and frustrate the Bell Centre crowd from shift to shift, and will no doubt say or do something to infuriate Carbo, Gainey, or the media. He will keep flying planes, crashing motorcycles, and remaining the Enigma. Kovalev is very much the product of the old Soviet system he was forged in: Possessor of immense potential, tight-lipped, capable of impressive feats, mysterious, controversial, and tough to really love and root for, even when he's on your side.
Chez Parée bound? – Guys like Kovalev always find their way in, and it drives the rest of the people in line crazy.
Lap dances – He could get as many as he wants; Unfortunately, Kovalev is such a wild card for this year's Habs, any rating could be the right one.
Signature Song – I Was Made to Love Magic by Nick Drake. At times brilliant, artistic, and near genius; at other times entirely incomprehensible and frustrating to everyone around him.
4 a.m. Smoked Meat Sandwich:
Panger: Please, PLEASE for the love of god Kovy, please want to play this year. Please, have some desire to lead your team and shut up the naysayers. Please, want to help your born-in-the-USSR linemates become stars in the NHL. Please, just show up for 60-65 games. Pretty please, care.
HF29: The glue on the stick moves bring tears to my eyes. Unfortunately, the armpit hair stuff brings tears to my eyes for other reasons. But I’ll always remember the ’04 playoffs. He was magic. I can only dream of seeing more of that.