Ottawa Senators fans are already somewhat familiar with Alex Kovalev, but only as a player on the other side of the puck. Now that he's going to be pulling the red, white, and black over his head instead of the bleu, blanc, et rouge, though, there's little doubt that our feelings towards the 36-year-old right winger have likely changed.
At $5M a season, Kovalev will not be cheap. Considering the Senators' current salary structure, precariously close to the salary cap ceiling with the Kovalev signing and Dany Heatley (a cap hit of $7.5M) still on the books. He's never been a sure thing, and has often been known to take games off--to the point where he was scratched for a couple of games last season in an effort to wake him up. At 36, Kovalev is not getting younger, although some of his best seasons offensively have been recent, including 84 points in 2007-08 and 65 points in 2008-09. There are certainly plenty of questions surrounding the signing, but it seems like the general tone among Senators fans is one of optimism, at least cautiously so.
THE CAP HIT
There's no doubt about the uncertainty stemming from the fact that Kovalev is inked to a two-year contract at $5M per season, beginning with a very difficult year this year (at least if Heatley's not traded) and going into some serious cap-related uncertainty for next season. Those questions, however, are tempered by the relatively short-term commitment of the contract--$5M is not a cap-killer, especially when acquired at or around the NHL trade deadline.
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Assuming the worst--that the Kovalev contract doesn't work out too well for the Senators this season, and they're sitting outside of a playoff spot come the NHL trade deadline--the contract is not nearly as difficult to move as, say, one with six year and $45M remaining on it (cough*HEATLEY*cough). It's not beyond belief that a team in contention might be interested in the services of Kovalev as a season-and-a-half rental, so the risk of the amount is offset to some degree by the term of the deal.
Kovalev has been called one of the most skilled players in the league, but he's also been called one of the least predictable players in the league. He's been known to take games off, and become disinterested--your prototypical fairweather floater, reinforcing a stereotype laid on the Sens in the early 2000s.
Still, Kovalev is a proud player. Assuming this contract is his final one, or at least an audition for his final deal, you can expect that he's going to play with something to prove. His propensity to take games off might not mesh well with head coach Cory Clouston's give-it-all-you've-got style,but Jim Schmiedeberg of Blueshirt Banter seems to think that a coach like Clouston may be just what it takes to get the best out of Kovalev. Even if not, with the dearth of checking forwards present on the roster, and Clouston's willingness to juggle lines, there's a very real possibility to use Kovalev largely as a powerplay specialist who's used sparingly at even strength. He might be a rather expensive specialist, but there are young guys on the Sens squad who won't mind getting extra ice time to show their skills.
Without a doubt, Kovalev's a dynamic player. One knock I would put on the Senators' powerplay in particular, and their offensive pressure in general, is a lack of creativity and some very significant preductability. In the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals, the Anaheim Ducks were able to shut down the Senators few offensive plays, and that's among the chief reasons why the Senators lost that series. What Kovalev brings is an exciting player who can, on some shifts, lift every spectator out of their seats in anticipation of his next move. It will recharge the Senators' powerplay, something that's desperately needed if the team is to (gasp!) make the post-season this year.
Heatley is a better pure scorer than Kovalev, but Kovy is a purer skill player than Heater. It's not likely that Kovalev will score as many points as Heatley will in the coming season, but he is guaranteed to cost less. Both are shooters, although Heatley has a better one-timer and Kovalev has a better wrister, but Kovalev has a significant advantage in stickhandling--an added bonus in shootouts, which the Senators have had serious difficulty with.
If Heatley is indeed dealt, it seems likely that Kovalev will take his spot alongside Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza on the first line--as long as one of Alfie or Kovy is willing to move to the left side of the ice. Whether by trade or by signing, the Senators will likely acquire another top-six forward to round out the two lines, and the cap savings between Heatley and Kovalev's contracts will allow them to sign a stronger top-six guy than otherwise. And, considering the often unique developmental situation for Russian-born NHLers, Kovalev's leadership might help Senators prospect Ilya Zubov find some of his potential as an NHLer in the same way he help Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn in Montreal.
If Heatley is retained, the Senators will be pretty much set for a sick powerplay and some very decent scoring depth. The second line that arose late last season, with Mike Fisher centring Ryan Shannon and Nick Foligno, would likely take some new form to incorporate whoever of the 'big four' is left off the top line, and the Senators would have a solid third line and a better-than-average (if vastly overpaid, considering it'll likely have Jarkko Ruutu [$1.3M], Chris Neil [$2M], and Chris Kelly [$2.125M]) fourth line rounding out the forwards. The team might have to ice a lineup of 16 players if injury problems arise, but it might be worth it in order to find some long-missing offensive support.
THE IMMEDIATE PAYOFF
How rewarding is it to see one of the Habs' most popular players sign with one of their divisional rivals less than a day after an 18,000-signature petition was released pleading with Montreal GM Bob Gainey to re-sign the winger? In my mind, it's pretty darn sweet.