No middle ground

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:01 AM ET

The Senators' signing of Alexei Kovalev, like the player himself, will be either be a coup or a disaster.

An inspiring move or a waste of money.

There is nothing indifferent about Alexei Kovalev.

Which is why the Senators will remain one of the most compelling stories in the NHL until and after the Dany Heatley saga reaches some sort of conclusion.

So little is known about where this Senators team is headed. As other organizations' rosters become more clearly defined, the Senators' remains a blurry work in progress.

The addition of Kovalev, for $5 million (all terms US) a year for the next two seasons, only adds to the uncertainty.

“The thing I know,” said Senators GM Bryan Murray a few hours after the press conference to announce the Kovalev acquisition, “is he is one of the top players in the NHL, without a doubt.”

There is doubt, of course.

Which Kovalev did the Senators sign?

Is it the player Canadiens fans, enraptured by his monstrous individual skill and vision, nicknamed “L’Artiste”?

Or the player who last season needed a sabbatical for a couple of days, his spirit and energy at an ebb?

The Heatley impasse has sapped some of the Senators’ organizational energy, but Murray and his management team faced the inevitable reality that there were other holes to be filled, other decisions to be made. It has not been anything close to a good situation, having to make those decisions with the Heatley elephant planted squarely in the middle of the room and in the middle of balance sheet.

Murray and his crew had identified the free agents they realistically had an opportunity to court. There were a series of conversations on the weekend with the Martin Havlat camp though the chances of a repatriating Mach 9 were never high. One source close to the negotiations indicated the Havlat camp was looking for an eight-year term, too long for the Senators.

The Senators had to have concerns about Havlat’s shoulder and spotty performance in the playoffs.

Maybe the Havlat camp was simply using the Senators to help expand the market for the winger and help negotiations with the Wild, which he signed a six-year, $30-million deal with.

Murray was monitoring the Habs’ situation and after seeing them trade for Scott Gomez and sign Michael Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, knew the chances of Kovalev returning to Montreal had all but disappeared.

“We talked to several free agents, but they were talking a lot of money and a lot of term,” said Murray.

Kovalev was willing to take a two-year term, which fit into the framework of commitment the Senators are willing to assume at this point. The negotiations continued through the weekend. Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was consulted.

“He thought he was one of the best players in the league,” said Murray, “and one of the best at helping other people be better.”

Kovalev’s addition pretty much maxes out whatever room the Senators had left with their salary cap. If they are forced to have Heatley in a Senators uniform come October, Murray said yesterday somebody is going to have to go between now and then.

“There will have to be a couple of adjustments,” he said.

Murray has always loved the challenge of extracting the best out of people. He embraced it when he was a teacher before turning to coaching.

He knows the challenge he and the Senators face in trying to coax a maximum effort from Kovalev night in and night out.

“We all feel his upside is a good one,” Murray said of his staff. “We tend to point fingers at superior talent, more than we do the average player. Jason Spezza is a case in point on our team. You just have to handle them the right way. Have expectations that are fair and help them meet them. You can’t win without players like that.”

Kovalev is an intriguing question mark on a team that is now filled with them.

The answers to most of the questions are still a ways off.

The Heatley question hangs in the air.

Now the Kovalev enigma is added to the mix.

Like the man himself, the signing will leave few indifferent.

“I don’t think,” said Murray, “this is a gamble at all.”


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