Kovalchuk soldiers on, Oil's not well, and the Norris race
The talented Ilya Kovalchuk is enduring yet another lost season in Atlanta
Craig MacTavish's job could be in jeopardy is the frustrating Oilers sputter
Low-on-the-radar Shea Weber could deny Nicklas Lidstrom another Norris
Like the horizontal scar on the bridge of his nose, Ilya Kovalchuk wears his frustrations honorably. In five NHL seasons, he had as many 40-plus goal seasons as playoff games: four. Despite the futility, he still plays with a high-revving motor, maybe one not cranked to Alexander Ovechkin's RPMs, but certainly high enough.
Kovalchuk has done everything the Atlanta Thrashers could possibly expect of him, but he is no closer to winning -- indeed, he's probably farther away -- than he has been since his first few seasons when the team was still experiencing expansion growing pains. By the time his contract expires at the end of 2009-2010, Kovalchuk will likely have missed the playoffs two more times.
"I put thinking in the future (on the back burner) because I love hockey so much," Kovalchuk told On The Fly. "Sometimes I get frustrated, but it's not like I go home and cry in my pillow. We'll get through this and be a better team."
The question: Will Kovalchuk be around to see it?
General manager Don Waddell dawdled last season, hoping to sign Marian Hossa to a long-term deal and finally wheeling him to Pittsburgh in a trade deadline auction for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito and the Penguins' 2008 first-round draft choice -- a modest 29th overall. Those are not exactly building blocks of a future Stanley Cup threat.
Waddell can go the same route with Kovalchuk, who says all the right things about the organization. Or he can be preemptive and make a move in the next few months, sending the left winger to a contender who can handle the contract -- Kovalchuk earns $7.5 million annually -- and has enough depth to package draft choices and at least one future first-pair defenseman.
Atlanta had exactly that player, Braydon Coburn, who was traded to Philadelphia for Alexei Zhitnik when Waddell was under orders in 2006-07 to get the Thrashers into the playoffs. For that cameo playoff appearance -- a sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers -- Atlanta forfeited a player who should anchor an NHL defense for a decade.
The Thrashers continue to give up a bushel of good scoring chances each game, a heavy workload for the fragile Kari Lehtonen (who is still out with back problems) and everybody's favorite backup, Johan Hedberg. Since their inception, the Thrashers never have managed to solve their problems on the back end.
Of course, Waddell could be endangering his job by trading his best player, but the Thrashers already were tied for the fewest points with Tampa Bay entering Tuesday's games and were drawing poorly at home. With the team's conflicted ownership situation, Waddell, who now has hired three coaches and served as his own bench boss for much of last season, might be able to survive that, too.
Although Kovalchuk had 15 points in his past 12 games entering Tuesday, his numbers are down. With rookie coach John Anderson shaking up his lines, Kovalchuk (eight goals 13 assists) was expected to play with right wing Chris Thorburn (one and one) and center Marty Reasoner (four and three) against Montreal following a disappointing home loss to St. Louis. Kovalchuk has not had a playmaking center worthy of his finishing skills since the gifted but problematic Marc Savard signed as a free agent with Boston in 2006.
"Actually it's not that important who his center is," Hedberg said. "He's not a winger who is going to sit out there, waiting for the centerman to get him the puck. He's going to grab the puck and go and try to score. He just needs to play with guys who can win faceoffs, get him the puck at the right times and support him.
"Kovy enjoys playing the game so much that he's been frustrated at times. But he's still been creating chances and with one bounce, he'll be right back. Guys like him don't lose their enthusiasm. This is what he wanted to be doing since he was 10 years old. He wants to score so badly. And when he's scoring, he's happy."
Kovalchuk, of course, would be happier if he were doing it when it really mattered -- in the playoffs. "That," he said, "is when you show your real game. I'm getting tired of playing 82 (regular-season) games and watching on TV."
He better have HD. Unless Waddell makes a preemptive trade, Kovalchuk will have wasted another year of a fabulous career that could, depending on Sergei Fedorov's late-career productivity, make him the first Russian player in NHL history to score 500 goals.