OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators broke the bank to sign Alex Kovalev two summers ago.
Instead of being the game breaker they thought he’d be, however, Kovalev only managed to break a few hearts, and on Thursday the Senators decided to cut their losses.
Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray continued his radical overhaul of the team’s roster ahead of Monday’s trade deadline by trading Kovalev to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a conditional seventh-round draft choice.
If the Penguins win a playoff round and Kovalev, who turned 38 on Thursday, plays in at least half the games, the pick becomes a sixth-rounder.
Kovalev becomes the fifth regular to leave Ottawa’s lineup in two weeks, following Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Brian Elliott out the dressing-room door of a team that will miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
The move also brings a close to the talented-but-frustrating forward’s time in Ottawa after he signed a US$10-million, two-year contract to join the Senators as a free agent in the summer of 2009, but just never seemed to be a good fit.
“I thought he could be, I think talent wise he should have been,” Murray said. “I don’t know that he was happy here all of the time. I think maybe he felt that his role on the team could have been a little different.”
The Senators also announced Thursday that they’d claimed 28-year-old forward Marek Svatos off waivers from the Nashville Predators, a move that was overshadowed by the news that Kovalev was returning to the team he spent parts of five seasons with previously.
Kovalev, who didn’t want to speak with reporters before leaving Scotiabank Place following practice Thursday when news of the deal broke, issued a statement through the team, thanking fans for their support and saying he was excited to get a chance to play in the playoffs with the Penguins, for whom he played from 1998-2003.
“I’m definitely pretty excited because I’ve been there before and I’ve had some good years,” Kovalev said. “It’s too bad that I couldn’t show myself, prove myself as a good player in Ottawa, but I still had a great time here and being around a good organization and a great group of guys.
“It’s too bad it’s ending this way, but it’s a business and it’s a life.”
Kovalev was signed by the Senators at a time when Dany Heatley had demanded a trade out of Ottawa and some fans and the media questioned the move, believing Kovalev’s arrival was done out of panic or at the request of owner Eugene Melnyk thinking it would placate ticket-buyers.
It didn’t. The Russian went on to record just 18 goals and 49 points in 77 games last season, which ended with him suffering a serious knee injury right before the Senators lost in a first-round playoff match-up to Pittsburgh, and returned this year with 14 goals and 27 points in 54 games.
Still, Murray defended the signing.
“I read all the stuff where he was so disappointing, but I had teams that are good teams going into the playoffs, calling to try and obtain his services,” Murray said. “Our team has been poor. We’ve had an awful year, that’s an understatement, and so there’s not one player that we could really say was having a good year.
“He’ll go (to Pittsburgh) and he’ll play in the top six and he’ll play fine for them. He won’t be their star, they’ve got a couple of those, but he’ll be a good player for them.”
With the Senators beginning to resemble their Binghamton AHL affiliate because of the number of call-ups needed with all of the recent departures, the addition of Svatos is helpful.
Goalie Craig Anderson, acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Elliott, has been the lone incoming NHL player.
Svatos, who’s signed to a two-way deal that pays him $800,000 at the NHL level and $105,000 at the AHL level, began the year with Avangard Omsk of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League before he was claimed by the Predators from the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 29. In nine game, he had one goal and three points.
Before this year, he played 316 games for Colorado, recording 96 goals and 164 points.
“We get a 20-game look at him and see what he can do for the organization,” Murray said. “We talked about him a couple of times this year.He’s not a big guy, but he has a history of scoring goals and we really need people.”
The Senators, who assigned defenceman Andre Benoit and centre Jim O’Brien to Binghamton on Thursday, still have more candidates to be on the move before Monday.
While Murray said he’s not actively looking to move right-winger Chris Neil as rumours suggest, the future of veteran blue-liner Chris Phillips is still up in the air.
He could be dealt or he could sign a contract extension as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent his summer. Phillips, who has a no-movement clause, has stated his desire to remain in Ottawa as part of its rebuild.
Murray said he approached Phillips and his agent, J.P. Barry, with a proposal, to which they countered, and should Phillips remain it would be at a salary less than the $3.5 million he’s currently earning.
“I’m waiting to get their reaction to what we want to have happen for Chris and for the organization, but I don’t know because he’s totally in control,” Murray said. “We’ll have further discussions before Monday.”
Kovalev also had a no-trade clause and Murray said he approached his camp about moving a month ago to lift it if the right deal was found.
Kovalev’s time in Ottawa was marked with indifferent play and he didn’t seem to see eye-to-eye with coach Cory Clouston, especially after Clouston took him out of the lineup briefly earlier this season.
“Alex is a veteran player that needs to be important and he’s been an important player and if you don’t give him that importance, as Dany Heatley showed, it’s probably easier to not play to your level,” Murray said. “As a coach, you have to define with each and every player where they fit and for Alex, it didn’t seem to work.
“Alex just came to see me and apologized for it not working here. He felt so bad that he has to move on, although he wants a chance to play in the playoffs, but he didn’t say anything about Cory. He didn’t say anything about anybody other than he was sorry that it didn’t work better here.”
With this move, the Senators continue to stockpile picks and shed salary. Fisher was dealt to Nashville for a first-round pick and another conditional pick, Kelly to Boston for a second-round selection, and Ruutu to Anaheim for a sixth-round choice.
Considering Ruutu fetched more in return, it was an indictment of the difficulty in moving Kovalev’s contract.
“The biggest thing that happened was the money,” said Murray, who spoke with three teams about deals for Kovalev. “Ray (Shero, the Penguins’ GM) said to me, ‘You know, a couple of other organizations, Bryan, would be asking you to pay something to take the salary for the balance of the year.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’d better talk to other teams because that’s not happening here. I don’t need a lot, but I need something.’
“The money was considerable for them to pick up at this stage of the year.”