Lost and Found
Failed phenom Alexei Kovalev has rediscovered his game in Pittsburgh
Early in the 1992-93 season, when Alexei Kovalev was a 19-year-old Rangers rookie who had recently arrived from Moscow, he got lost for several hours driving in New York City. When he finally got home, he encountered a friend who had been trying frantically to find him. "Don't worry," Kovalev said. "I will never disappear."
Kovalev was no prophet. During the next six seasons with the Rangers he disappeared time and again by playing inconsistently and thus often wound up on the bench. A strong, graceful skater with a dangerous shot, Kovalev, whom New York traded to Pittsburgh on Nov. 25 for center Petr Nedved, was repeatedly billed by NHL observers as a potential 40-goal, 100-point player. He could make defenders fall with his moves, yet he tended to hold on to the puck too long and frequently gave it away while trying to make the perfect play. The media attacked Kovalev's shortcomings as selfishness, and Rangers coaches got fed up with him.
"It was hard to be confident," says the 6'2", 215-pound Kovalev, who never scored more than 24 goals or 58 points for New York. "The coaches would say the team needed me, and then they wouldn't give me ice time."
He's getting plenty of it in Pittsburgh, where coach Kevin Constantine has told him to just play his game. Through Sunday, Kovalev had 15 goals and 15 assists in 32 games with the Penguins and—along with star right wing Jaromir Jagr—had been the driving force behind a nine-game winning streak that put Pittsburgh (29-15-7) in position to challenge the Flyers (28-12-13) for the best record in the Eastern Conference. "He has always been one of the most skilled players," says Jagr, the front-runner for the Hart Trophy with a league-leading 81 points. "He's loose here. I remember we'd play the Rangers, and each time they lost, everyone blamed him. How was he supposed to play that way?"
Constantine's faith in Kovalev—who had averaged 20 minutes a game for the Penguins and mans the point on the power play—has transformed caution to courage. "When you play a lot, you don't worry," Kovalev says. "You think about doing something to win the game."
That attitude has paid off. In a 2-1 win over the Red Wings on Feb. 7, Kovalev boldly intercepted a pass at the Detroit blue line and swept in for a short-handed goal. Two nights later, at home against the Canadiens, he drove to the net in overtime and scored the game-winner on a rebound of his own shot. Such plays, and Constantine's assurance that "we want Alexei out there as much as possible," shows that in Pittsburgh, Kovalev isn't about to disappear.
General Managers' Poll
Who's the Most Overrated?
Lest you survey the Lightning roster and think Tampa Bay (11-38-4 through Sunday) looks O.K. on paper, consider how NHL general managers responded when we asked them to name the league's most overrated player. Nearly 30% of the 21 respondents fingered a member of the Lightning, with center Chris Gratton receiving a league-high four votes and winger Alexandre Daigle getting two. Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov and Sharks right wing Owen Nolan were each cited three times, and nine players were named on one ballot apiece.
Gratton, whom Tampa Bay picked third in the 1993 draft, seemed on the cusp of his widely anticipated stardom after scoring a career-best 30 goals for the Lightning in 1996-97. He became a free agent that summer, and the Flyers signed him to a multiyear deal that included a $9 million bonus. Gratton scored only 22 goals last year, however, and this season—he was traded back to Tampa Bay in December—he had only three. "There was such a buzz about him his first few years," said one general manager. "Not anymore."