Alexei Kovalev’s place in New York Rangers historical past is safe. The Russian ahead with the infectious, boyish smile and the prodigious expertise won’t ever be forgotten by a fanbase who watched the then-21-year-old assist energy the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup in 1994 with a clutch efficiency in these wonderful NHL playoffs.
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Those indelible photographs, although, nearly utterly overshadow the incontrovertible fact that the Rangers had been in any other case by no means capable of get the greatest out of Kovalev throughout elements of eight seasons over two stints on Broadway – whereas two of the different NHL groups he performed for succeeded in unlocking his potential, getting rewarded with the sort of outcomes that for no matter purpose, eluded Kovalev whereas in a Blueshirt.
He represented the Rangers’ most bold foray into the accessible Russian expertise pool that had been steadily increasing as the Soviet Union declined in the late Eighties and early Nineties: Kovalev was drafted fifteenth general by the Rangers in 1991, changing into the first Russian-born and Soviet participant to be chosen in the first spherical of the NHL draft. Big and quick with a robust wrist shot and excellent passing abilities, Kovalev – the top-ranked European in his draft class – was going to be New York’s Sergei Fedorov, the star Russian middle who had arrived in the NHL the earlier season and dazzled with the Detroit Red Wings.
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While the street out of the Soviet Union to North America for some stars comparable to Fedorov, Slava Fetisov and Alexander Mogilny had been considerably tougher just some years earlier than, Kovalev represented a brand new wave of Russian gamers who had been free to affix the NHL nearly instantly. Eager to faucet the abilities Russians had displayed of their then-limited time in North America, the Rangers hoped they had been getting a famous person who solely wanted some sprucing earlier than unleashing his expertise at Madison Square Garden.
Kovalev definitely gave the impression to be on his approach in 1992-93, making his NHL debut with 20 targets and 18 assists in 65 video games. He upped his totals to 23 targets and 33 assists and 76 video games in 1993-94, whereas playing with an edge that belied a happy-go-lucky nature round teammates. Kovalev racked up a surprising 154 penalty minutes that season and had 11 seasons by which he reached 70 or extra.
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The occasions of the spring of 1994, after all, are what cemented Kovalev’s place in New York sports activities lore. Unfazed by the enormity of the Rangers’ quest to finish a 54-year Stanley Cup drought, he delivered 21 factors in 23 postseason video games – along with his good far-post shot previous the New Jersey Devils’ Martin Brodeur in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final sparking the Blueshirts’ comeback from the brink of elimination. That aim proved as vital as any in the membership’s run to the long-awaited title.
Kovalev’s Star in New York Began to Fall
The Rangers had a championship, and of their minds, a superstar-in-waiting. Kovalev joined teammates Sergei Nemchinov, Sergei Zubov and Alexander Karpovtsev as the first Russians to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup. Kovalev’s future as a Ranger appeared vivid and thrilling, followers keen to observe his oft-breathtaking expertise carry him to new heights. That he clearly loved America and New York City, the child who grew up beneath the restrictions of the Soviet Union, made Kovalev all the extra interesting to followers who noticed a future cornerstone for the Blueshirts.
“The cultural differences interest me; they don’t scare me,” Kovalev stated then. “Here, you choose your own lifestyle.” (From ‘Rangers’ Kovalev is Fast Becoming Americanized’, New York Times, 9/16/92)
Yet the anticipated breakout didn’t occur in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, when Kovalev posted 13 targets and 15 assists in 48 video games. He recorded a career-high 58 factors on 24 targets and 34 assists in 1995-96, but was restricted by damage to 45 video games and 35 factors the following season.
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With reminiscences of the Stanley Cup season fading, some frustration with Kovalev was constructing inside the group – particularly for coach Colin Campbell, who had taken over after Mike Keenan’s unceremonious departure. Kovalev’s play could possibly be completely maddening for coaches and followers alike – one shift he would appear to coast, largely uninvolved and seemingly not paying consideration, the subsequent he would dominate play along with his energy and pace and deft stickhandling.
Unable to make the quantum leap the Rangers anticipated he would, Kovalev’s coachability and work ethic got here into query. An unfair stereotype utilized to Russian gamers at the time – that unshackled from the military-like coaching packages of the Soviet system, they’d develop into lazy amidst their newfound freedom – was thrown round. He was accused of being a “diver” who faked accidents.
Kovalev delivered 23-goal, 30-assist seasons in 1996-97 and 1997-98, but the Rangers had develop into disillusioned with him, maybe believing that he had hit his ceiling and that stardom wasn’t in the playing cards. 14 video games into the following season, they gave up, buying and selling the 1994 playoff hero to the Pittsburgh Penguins with Harry York for Petr Nedved, Chris Tamer and Sean Pronger.
Trade to Penguins Lifted Kovalev to New Heights
The finish of his first Rangers tenure and the change of surroundings both suited Kovalev or woke him up – or each. He recorded 20 targets and 26 assists in 63 video games for the Pens in 1998-99, then delivered 5 targets and 7 assists in 10 playoff video games that spring, additional establishing a career-long development of postseason success. Kovalev totaled 100 factors in 123 playoff contests.
He posted a career-best 66 factors in 1999-00, however the Rangers Regret Tour actually received into full swing over the following three seasons. Kovalev recorded 95, 76 and 77 factors throughout that point, blossoming into the offensive power the Blueshirts believed he would.
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It’s value noting that Kovalev performed with Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, who’re identified for having fairly the constructive impression on teammates’ level totals. However, whereas Kovalev’s 95-point efficiency in 2000-01 complemented Jagr’s 121-point effort, his 76 factors led the membership in 2001-02, when Jagr had departed for the Washington Capitals and Lemieux performed solely 36 video games. Lemieux was wholesome and totaled 91 factors in 2002-03, whereas Kovalev was second on the staff with 64 factors in 54 video games earlier than his second go-round in New York started.
Blueshirts administration wished a mulligan after watching Kovalev pile up 171 factors in the first two of these full seasons with the Penguins. It received one in February 2003, when cost-cutting Pittsburgh traded Kovalev again to New York in an eight-player deal. He recorded 10 targets and three assists in 24 video games with the Rangers that season, giving him 77 factors and a three-season stretch by which he averaged greater than a degree per recreation.
The second engagement on Broadway was going to be completely different, with a extra mature and in-his-prime Kovalev again the place he belonged.
Right? Well … no.
Act 2 lasted all of 66 extra irritating video games the following season. Kovalev was clearly sad and it confirmed in his deteriorating recreation. The followers turned on him, booing him constantly. The reunion was a mistake, under no circumstances meant to be. Perhaps it by no means was for the Rangers and Kovalev.
Then-general supervisor Glen Sather mercifully traded him to the Montreal Canadiens for prospect Jozef Balej and a second-round choose March 3, 2004.
“New York is about big players and star names, and it seemed whatever I tried didn’t work,” Kovalev stated then in a telling quote. “Nothing worked. I wish it did. I wish I did a better job.” (From ‘Rangers Trade Kovalev to Habs’, New York Post, 3/3/04)
The expertise was a tragic one for all concerned, a forgettable ultimate chapter in the place the place all of it started for Kovalev, the place he gave the impression to be something however overwhelmed and out of his aspect on the huge stage throughout that magical spring of 1994.
Another Trade from Rangers, Another Resurgence
The story may need been much more disheartening had that failed reunion marked the finish for Kovalev. Perhaps exasperatingly for the Rangers, that turned out to not be the case.
Kovalev recorded solely a aim and two assists in 12 regular-season video games for the Canadiens that season, however his playoff self emerged once more, with six targets and 4 assists in 11 postseason video games. Given their first expertise of buying and selling him away, maybe the Rangers ought to have identified what was to come back.
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Though damage struck once more in 2005-06, limiting him to 69 video games, Kovalev recorded 65 factors. He adopted that up with a Rangers-like season in 2006-07, when he managed solely 47 factors and a minus-19 ranking in 73 video games.
The ensuing bounce-back, although, most likely would have by no means occurred in a Rangers sweater. Kovalev’s 35 targets and 84 factors in 2007-08 had been the second-best totals of his profession, whereas his 49 assists had been a career-best. Then 34 years outdated, his plus-18 ranking tied a career-high.
One extra excellent season adopted, one other 65-point effort for Montreal in 2008-09 that after all noticed him add 11 factors in 12 playoff video games. Signing for 2 years with the Ottawa Senators in the offseason, he would document 36 targets and 52 assists for them and two different groups over the ultimate 4 seasons of his profession – one in all them a short-lived reunion with the Penguins in 2011 – and had a career-best four-goal recreation Jan. 3, 2010, for the Sens.
Kovalev completed with 430 targets and 599 assists over a 19-year NHL career. For the Rangers, these totals needed to be greater than just a bit bit painful.
It’s not possible to say why Kovalev by no means discovered sustained success in New York. He wasn’t imported from one other staff, the sort of transfer that hinders so many others unaccustomed to the white-hot highlight of Gotham; he was drafted and introduced alongside by the Rangers, then starred as they authored one in all the nice moments in NHL historical past.
Kovalev’s Rangers Struggles Likely to Remain a Mystery
That makes Kovalev’s underachievement in New York all the extra complicated. Did the expectations of stardom there develop too heavy, the highlight too vivid – which he maybe alluded to after being despatched away for the second time? Did he really feel overshadowed and unappreciated? Did Rangers’ teaching efforts fail to get by means of to him in the approach such efforts appeared to in Pittsburgh and Montreal, or was Kovalev’s perceived stubbornness by some means extra prevalent in New York?
Perhaps we’ll by no means know. Perhaps it was a mixture of a number of of these components. Here’s what we do know: Kovalev recorded seven seasons of 60 or extra factors and 4 of at the very least 70. None of them got here with the Rangers.
So can Kovalev be labeled as One That Got Away from the Blueshirts? There is likely to be sufficient proof to say no. The intensive physique of labor that included a second stint on Broadway means that he merely wasn’t going to thrive long-term with the Rangers – regardless of the merciless irony that he largely developed into the participant they believed he would develop into on draft day in 1991.
Instead, Kovalev’s legacy in a Blueshirt is boiled all the way down to the spring of 26 years in the past and perhaps in the end, a single second: The near-perfect shot that eluded after which unsettled Brodeur and the Devils, slicing the Rangers’ Game 6 deficit to 2-1 after two durations and setting the stage for Mark Messier’s hat trick that propelled them previous New Jersey and ultimately, to the Stanley Cup.
Given what that aim at the moment ended up that means to the Rangers and their followers, that is likely to be sufficient.