Friday, December 10, 2010

No Prima Donnas

A great example of Kovalev's defensive coverage comes around 0:45 of this video. Watch him take over 6 seconds to arrive at the play.

One of the cool things about the team this year is how little we talk about keeping our stars happy, or trying to get a player going, or any player putting himself above the team. The Canucks have no prima donnas in their lineup. It's hard to really note how valuable that is until you wind up with such a player on your team.

Fortunately, Alex Kovalev has jumped in to remind Canucks fans just what they're missing.

Senators Head Coach Cory Clouston has a lot in common with Alain Vigneault in that he believes in accountability and team play. No one person is above the team. When Dany Heatley wasn't producing on the power play, Clouston moved him to the second unit. Heatley then demanded a trade. But not to Edmonton.

Clouston treats ice time, not as an entitlement based on salary, but as his carrot and stick. This thinking is great for a team but horrible for anyone who feels entitled to quality offensive minutes. Unfortunately, it seems when Bryan Murray signed Alex Kovalev as a replacement for Heatley, he wasn't getting back Heatley's offense, but Heatley's temperament.

Kovalev was paid $5 million last season to score less than 50 points, and this season is off to a worse start. Management started him off on the top line with Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson -- what should be a huge scoring opportunity -- but he failed to produce and has since been shuffled all around the lineup at various points of time. The only real constant was that Kovalev was always getting power play time. Still, he scored only four power play goals last season. Bryan Murray signed fellow Russian Sergei Gonchar, a move many speculated was intended to help Kovalev. It's doubtful that Murray would sign a player to a 3 year, $16.5 million deal just to make Kovalev happy, but the move was nonetheless expected to help him wake up.

Of course, it didn't, and now Kovalev is on pace for fewer than 40 points this season. So Cory Clouston did what he had to -- he demoted Kovalev to the fourth line. Kovalev hasn't had a point in six games. More importantly, he doesn't seem to care on the ice. It's like he signed with the Senators because it meant he could have steady access to a rink for his recreational skates. He shows an apparent lack of interest in the game. If Clouston didn't demote Kovalev, the team would know their coach's whole approach to giving ice time based on the results on the ice is complete poppycock.

How did Kovalev respond to this?

"There's nothing I can do about it. I'm not the only one not playing well and he decides to pick me. It's been happening my whole career. I accept that."

Wow. That, cats and kittens, is an NHL player literally whining. And there's more:

"I never make Christmas wishes, but I think at this point I wish people would stop picking my brain and just let me play the way I can. That's the only Christmas wish I can have right now."

Kovalev's Christmas wish is to be left alone. Why aren't there any Sens fans sticking up for him? Where is Kovalev's Chris Crocker? Also, parenthetically, clearly he doesn't know what it means to pick one's brain. But let's hear more:

"I just don't understand because sometimes when you start playing well, and everything goes well, they start brain-picking again. I don't know why it keeps happening and why they don't just let me play like I can. I don't know if it's some kind of jealousy or something else."

So, to summarize, Kovalev doesn't know why he's being singled out. As far as he's concerned, it doesn't coincide with the quality of his play -- it happens all the time when he's playing well, too. It just happens to him, personally, a lot, and no one can tell why. Maybe it's because the coaches are jealous of him.

Now, it needs to be emphasized that Kovalev isn't just failing to score, he's playing with little effort all around. When the opposition has the puck in the offensive zone, he'll just stand around waiting for his linemates to get it back. Essentially, the other team has the man-advantage. And yet when Clouston reduces his ice time and says to him that he wants a consistent effort, the message Kovalev gets is he must be jealous.

I don't need to point out that the Canucks receive this kind of message much better. Just this season, look how well Tambellini has responded to being sent down. Look how well he's capitalized on his second chance with the team. Look at Keith Ballard. The guy makes over 4 million a season and was making it from the press box, and rather than complain, he agreed that his play hadn't been the best, and then improved it.

True, there have been moments in the past where rifts between current Canucks and their coach have caused problems. Most memorably, after Kesler left the checking line to play with Sundin, Burrows failed to carry the third line. His play suffered. Vigneault punished him by making him play with the Sedins in an offensive role. Burrows, incensed by this non-pest role, began scoring goals in bunches to punish his coach. This argument still continues, with neither side apparently willing to budge.

But beyond that, Canucks get the message and buy in to the team's plan. If the coach sends a message, it's heard loud and clear. Mike Gillis has done a good job in jettisoning any players who didn't seem to respond well to his coach's way of doing things. That kind of attention to detail is one of the reasons he's earned so much respect among Canuck fans after coming from nowhere to snag the job.

Bryan Murray knew his team wasn't performing to potential. That's why he hired Clouston to begin with -- he's known for holding players accountable. Murray's mistake, however, was to hire Clouston and then sign a player like Kovalev, who feels entitled to big minutes. After his complaints, he was reinstated on the top line for tonight's game. Was this a result of instructions given to Clouston from above? Did Clouston feel Kovalev deserved the spot back? Did he just give up on trying to get through to his prima donna star? It's not clear. All we have to go on is Kovalev's response: "I don't know why he's doing this, maybe he's jealous." That, and that in tonight's game, he was again simply waiting for his team to retrieve the puck for him in the defensive zone.

I think it's fair to say Kovalev didn't get the message. Thank Gillis he's not a Canuck.


  1. "Burrows, incensed by this non-pest role, began scoring goals in bunches to punish his coach. This argument still continues, with neither side apparently willing to budge."


    This article is very true. But you're forgetting about Mikael "Swear Jar" Samuelsson. He's just waiting for an opportunity to tell AV what he can go do.

  2. when you think about it, the canucks are actually full of players that are over-performing. nobody thought the sedins would top 80 points a season, let alone 100. and nobody picked burrows to be a 35 goal scorer. or kesler to be approaching a #1 center. add jeff tambellini christian ehrhoff mikael samuelsson mason raymond and alex edler to the mix. keep in mind edler was a third round pick and is now our #1 defencemen. basically everyone player but luongo and the fourth line is over performing.
    we should be ridiculously happy with the players we have.
    and we should point and laugh at new jersey ottawa toronto and the new york islanders.

  3. Rather than point and laugh, I opt for silent smugness. I always opt for silent smugness.

  4. Amen Qris, I think the closest player they Canucks have to a Kovalev is Samuellson due to the Olympics thing. I think he felt entitled to be on the team seeing as how he was on the gold medal team in 2006. I don't know if he was entitled to the spot but he probably did deserve it over Weinhandl. It comes across at times as though he feels he deserves to play with the Sedins, or it could just be me.

    Speaking of which I don't know how Samuellson isn't one of your favorite awkward Canucks. He certainly is an oddball and it comes off in interviews. I remember when HNIC did a piece on the massive renovations the Canucks did on the locker rooms. All of the Canucks were raving about how great they were... and then they get to Samuellson.
    "Yeah they are OK but they aren't much different from other dressing rooms in the lague"

  5. Good point with Samuelsson's weirdness, but we often give him a wide berth. He's shown that he takes things very seriously, and second, he's got a record of shooting first and asking questions later. Not someone we want on our bad side.

    As to Samuelsson's being in any way close to Kovalev, far from it. The man was legitimately hurt by team Sweden, but rather than cry about it, he went on a tear to prove them wrong. The guy's really low-maintenance though. Look at this season -- he's spent a lot of time on the third line and I haven't heard any complaints as a result of the demotion. If he was Kovalev, he would have told the media that Alain Vigneault was jealous of him. As it stands, he hasn't even suggested AV go do anything that's obscene and/or anatomically impossible.

    Former Canucks prima donna candidates include guys like Kyle Wellwood ("Gretzky never had to work out"), Shane O'Brien ("The coach just doesn't want to give me a chance"), and Jan Bulis ("I'm not getting enough offensive minutes"). To his credit, a call from his dad did straighten Bulis out. His fate was already sealed, but he breathed his last doing something right for once, like Edmund. Wellwood also learned how to play ball -- a skill that didn't help him in hockey, but was nevertheless crucial to his character development.

  6. Love the article Qris, you can't be more right. We don't have Prima Donnas. Luongo takes shit every day from fans and doesn't bitch. Players get moved all around the line up and don't bitch. Ballard sits and doesn't bitch (he does the opposite, actually). Noone bitches.

    Love the Homage to Naslund on your banner btw. Epic.

  7. Hehe I didn't mean to make it sound like Samuellson was anything close to Kovalev. Samuellson obviously learned the right way to talk to the media especially with the time he spent in Detroit. It's too bad about Kovalev, he had all of the talents to be one of this generations greats and it's a shame he chose to learn nothing from playing on the Rangers cup winning team as well as time spent with the Penguins.

    I agree it's nice that O'brien is gone. Keith Ballard has handled his limited minutes and press box nights like a champ and has done nothing but improve each game.

  8. Isn't Kovalev like 152 years old? I'm not sure how much offensive production should really be expected out of his at this point anyway. Frankly, I was surprised he was as celebrated as he was in Montreal, seeing as he was already a greybeard then.


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