Kovalev stuck in the past

JASON YORK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:11 PM ET

Bashing Alex Kovalev has supplanted hockey as Ottawa’s favourite sport over the past week, and it’s time for it to stop.

Nobody put a gun to Senators owner Eugene Melnyk’s head to sign off on the $10-million deal to bring Kovalev to town, and his performance over the past season and a half should not have surprised anyone.

The 37-year-old Russian is highly skilled, highly entertaining and, yes, very frustrating to watch for fans and coaches alike. This has been the book on Kovalev his entire career, so I don’t know why his critics are so surprised now.

People are a product of their environment, and hockey players are no different. When No. 27 was at his best in the NHL, star players were different and the game was played differently. Unfortunately for Ottawa fans, Kovalev has not adapted his game to the realities of the new NHL.

In Kovalev’s best season, 2000-01, he was fourth in league scoring with 44 goals and 51 assists. Jaromir Jagr led the league in scoring that season, while stars such as Jason Allison, Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin and Ziggy Palffy were also near the top of league scoring. Players like Peter Sykora and Marius Czerkawski were scoring 35 goals.

Obviously, all those players were dynamic in their own way. But the one glaring trait they all shared — aside from their tremendous skills — was they were all what NHL coaches today would call “cheaters.”

In the old NHL, offensive stars were allowed to “cheat” — that is, they ignored their defensive responsibilities in their own zone, often sneaking up the ice in anticipation of a rush into the offensive zone. It was expected that players, especially star players, would often cheat, and coaches would put up with it because that’s just what star players did back then.

Colorado’s Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg were also in the top 10 in scoring in the 2000-01 season. Both probably could have had a few more points, but they focused on playing a more complete game, backchecking in their own zone and competing hard at both ends of the ice.

Guess who won the Cup that season? Colorado, of course.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Pavel Bure scored 59 goals that season. I remember vividly one particular night in Miami when I continually had to keep looking over my shoulder because Bure was standing behind me at the red line every shift I was on against him. Not surprisingly, Bure and the Panthers missed the playoffs.

The message is clear: To win championships, teams need everyone — even their stars — to commit to defence as well as offence.

Many star players from that era were “cheaters,” but they didn’t stand out that much because the game was played differently. Fast forward to 2010, and when you look at the top players in the game, names like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk, Brad Richards and Steve Stamkos are at the top of the list.

Just like star players back in 2000-01, these tremendous talents share a common trait — but now, it’s a willingness to play both sides of the puck. Players can’t be one-dimension and succeed in today’s NHL — you can’t cheat if you want to win.

Players play too hard today, the back pressure is ridiculous and if you’re a one-way player, you’ll be exposed. Crosby is tearing up the league this season and everyone is amazed. But the truly amazing thing is, he’s playing just as hard defensively.

If a team wants to win a Stanley Cup, its top six forwards have to play both ways and they have to play hard. Players can’t cheat anymore.

I love watching Alex Kovalev play. I admire his skill and his creativity. But I wouldn’t have him on my team.

Only a rare few can do the things on the ice Kovalev can, but when I watch him, I just keep thinking he’s a player stuck in the wrong era.


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