Will the Canadiens be shot down by an AK27?
Hey there…glad to serve on the good ship Be Sinking (What? Oh!). I have some different opinions from my good friend Blog Leader (if I told you his identity, I’d have to kill you), and my fandom is similar, but not identical. For me, the major interests are the Montreal Canadiens and Arsenal, with my other interests being in MMA, boxing, the NY Giants, the LA Lakers, Celtic FC and the San Francisco Giants. I don’t understand basketball or combat sports to anywhere near the degree that Blog Leader does, but I’ll make up for it with my hockey knowledge gleaned from being a high-school benchwarmer and the slightly-different slant on soccer from my experiences as a Sunday League superstar (hint: I rabidly defend keepers to the death…take a guess what position I play).
That said, since the Eboue thing has been done to death, I figure I’ll kick off the hockey coverage here on TSBS by rambling a bit about a man capable of generating as much amazement as he does incredible frustration – a certain #27, Alexei Kovalev.
The always-awesome Mike Boone over at Habs Inside/Out discussed the Kovalev situation at length in his latest About Last Night feature after the Habs’ frustrating 2-1 OT loss to the New Jersey Devils. As it turns out, AK27 took a lazy, stupid penalty in the offensive zone with 27 ticks left in the third period. While the Devils won’t ever be confused with the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers offensively, they do have enough weapons where giving them a 4-on-3 situation isn’t recommended. Anyway, here’s Boone:
It wasn’t his first selfish play. And God knows it won’t be his last. But given the game situation, what was a veteran of 1,099 games thinking? Kovalev is still the most skillful player on the Canadiens. On many nights, he’s the most skillful player on the ice. In the pre-game introductions, he still gets very warm applause. His flamboyant style is tailor-made for a Montreal crowd that likes their hockey played with élan, flair and a lot of hair. Notwithstanding that Jacques Lemaire started his coaching career here, Devils hockey would not fly at the Bell Centre. We like Kovy hockey – when the team is winning. And when he’s scoring. The last time Alex Kovalev scored, John McCain was still campaigning for president … And the worst of it is yet to come. With very little fear of the Canadiens’ PP, teams that play on the edge – like Philadelphia and Boston – will take even greater liberties. Why not throw an elbow to take Tomas Plekanec or Andrei Kostitsyn off his game? The worst that can happen is two minutes of watching Kovalev at the half-boards as he tries to decide whether to pass through a forest of legs, take a shot that will be blocked or throw it back to the Player Who Is Not Mark Streit at the point.
Oh my GOD, does this ever sum up what is wrong with this hockey team right now. It’s one thing to watch them pound on an exhausted, slumping Rangers team (I have a feeling it won’t be 6-2 on January 4th here in NYC, unless it’s that scoreline in the other direction), but we’re going to live and die on most nights against top teams with our embryo goaltender…we’ll win with Cat Burglar Carey, and lose with Cat Litter Carey. While that thankfully means we’ll win much more often than not, last year’s playoffs were a harsh example of what can happen when you depend on nothing but the netminder. Sure, a guy who catches fire can and has won playoff series before…but what happens if he’s merely average? Having your “snipers” meander around in the offensive zone for a while before shoveling a weak shot into the pads of a mediocre journeyman goaltender (who we made look like Vladislav Tretiak crossed with Martin Brodeur) isn’t going to cut it, especially against teams who are bigger and stronger (so, the whole league, then).
That brings me back to Kovalev. Look, we don’t win the Eastern Conference last year without him (we also don’t win it if the Penguins didn’t tank that game against the Flyers at the end, but we’ll leave that aside for now). I can’t remember when the last point-per-game type graced the bleu, blanc et rouge, and you can’t discount the effect he surely must have had on the other Russians/Central Asians on the club.
But, how much of an anomaly was his 84-point effort last term? For one thing, he actually played all 82 games. Looking back through his career, he has topped 80 games on two other occasions – once for the Rangers in ’95-’96, and once for the Penguins in ’99-’00. There are two other seasons in the 70 range, but beyond that it’s all in the 50-65 range. We’ll discount any year he played less than 50, but his average season otherwise works out to: 72 GP, 25 G-35 A-60 Pts. Those are nice numbers, but they’re certainly not those of a consistent world-beater. Statistically, his best season was ’00-’01 with Pittsburgh, where he racked up a stellar 44-51-95. If you take away that season and last season from the 50+ GP data set, his averages drop to 71 GP, 23-33-56 Pts. That isn’t too far away from Andrei Kostitsyn’s line last season. Now ask yourself, as much as you and I both love AK46, would you pay $4.5 million for him?
As it turns out, the Habs locked him up this summer for a million less than that. More importantly, Big Tits (TM Four Habs Fans) won’t turn 24 until February. At the end of that month, Kovalev will turn 36.
Despite his slump, AK27 is on pace to score 60 points…assuming he appears in all 82 games. Again, it’s nice to have, but it’s not $4.5 million worth of production. Having said that, I admit that it’s only part of the larger issue.
The one thing that the Canadiens have that separates them from average teams is pure, raw, unadulterated speed. They can throw three lines (four if WWE Heavyweight Champion Georges Laraque is a healthy scratch) of little dudes who can skate circles around most opponents. Woe betide the opposing defenseman who gets caught pinching against this group, that’s for sure. We’re at our best countering with speed and precision passing. Kovalev, for all his prodigious skill, slows our game to a crawl. Further, while no one can make that pass from one side of the net to the other quite like Kovy, the problem is that those passes are finding opposing legs and sticks far more often than they did last season. We scored so many goals last year with Kovy or someone else finding a wide-open cutter on the back post. This year, that option is rarely available.
And that, mes amies, is the crux of the matter. The awful truth is that those (expletive deleted…err, make that several expletives deleted) Philadelphia Flyers sussed us out last year, and now the whole league has caught on. Actually, it was probably Boston that really did so in the first round, but they just didn’t have enough talent to pull it out. Philly did. While we’ll still win our share of games through our improved defense and Carey’s heroics, we’re not annihilating teams anymore. We’re not fooling anyone with those 14-pass “Ole!” goals anymore. Last season kind of spoiled us, and we’re going to have to get used to the fact that we’re going to be in far more 2-1 battles than we were last year. The potential upside though is that hopefully it strengthens the team’s resolve once the games REALLY matter.
In the end though, I worry that Kovy is going to cost us when that time comes. Be it through aimless skating, a poorly-thought out pass into a thicket of opponents or a dumb penalty at precisely the wrong time, my nightmare is that his talent will fail to be outweighed by his potential liability. I was his biggest fan last year, but I’m beginning to come around to Boone’s way of thinking.
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