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.