PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Penguins general manager Ray Shero didn’t need to search for a character reference while he was exploring whether to re-acquire forward Alex Kovalev, whose NHL career peaked in Pittsburgh.
Co-owner Mario Lemieux gladly gave a thumbs-up to bringing back Kovalev, who had a 44-goal season with Pittsburgh during Lemieux’s comeback season in 2000-01.
Lemieux’s assessment: Good guy with the puck. Good guy in the room. Good guy to add to a team that, without the injured Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has gone from being one of the NHL’s most dangerous offences to one of its lowest-scoring.
“Mario was more of a character reference than anything. Mario always been, ‘Hey, you guys know the players,'” Shero said Thursday after dealing a conditional seventh-round pick to Ottawa for the 38-year-old Kovalev.
“But having known Alexei Kovalev, he certainly he goes to bat for him as a player and a teammate.”
While Kovalev’s 14 goals in 54 games with Ottawa are the fewest he’s had since he scored 13 in 66 games for the Rangers in 2003-04, he immediately becomes one of the Penguins’ top scorers. Only James Neal, acquired Monday from Dallas, has more goals with 21.
The Penguins, losers of seven of nine, have scored more than three goals only once in 15 games. They haven’t produced more than three goals in any of their last 11 games, during a stretch in which they rank only 22nd in scoring.
Kovalev didn’t get along with Ottawa coach Cory Clouston—the coach questioned Kovalev’s motivation and demoted him to the fourth line—but that didn’t weigh into Shero’s decision. Kovalev was one of Pittsburgh’s most popular players before being dealt to the Rangers in a salary-dumping move in 2003.
“I don’t have any issues character wise with Alex Kovalev,” Shero said. “In terms of the risk-reward ratio, we’re hoping the reward will be worth it—the risk is minimal.…We hope he will get back to playing some of his better hockey here. We’re hoping for the short term here he will be energized to play, and to play for Dan (Bylsma, Pittsburgh’s coach).”
Kovalev is expected to join the Penguins in time for Friday night’s game at Carolina. They also play Saturday at Toronto.
Despite having a down season, Kovalev has five goals in his last eight games.
“What we’re missing on the half wall on the power play with Malkin and Crosby up high, Alex is a guy who can create offence and open things up,” Shero said. “He’s got the hands and patience with the puck. He still has that. He can still shoot it.…He’ll get plenty of opportunity and we’ll let him find his way.”
The Penguins have made two trades in four days and, while Shero doesn’t expect adding a defenceman before Monday’s trade deadline, he hasn’t ruled out making another deal.
Pittsburgh added significant salary cap space when Malkin went down with a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 4, during the only game he had played since Jan. 18. Crosby (concussion) hasn’t played since Jan. 5. That cap room allowed them to acquire Neal, defenceman Matt Niskanen and Kovalev, who is in the second season of a US$10-million, two-year contract.
“We’ll continue to look by Monday to see what we can do,” Shero said.