OTTAWA – Alex Kovalev admits he was “disappointed” to leave Montreal, but feels he can be a missing piece of the puzzle in helping the Ottawa Senators rebound from their own disappointing times.
The 36-year-old right-winger spoke with reporters Tuesday, one day after he left the Canadiens to sign a US$10-million, two-year deal with the Senators.
In a conference call from Russia, the longtime NHL veteran expressed his gratitude to fans in Montreal and tried to clear up any misconceptions about his perceived image as a selfish, uncaring player as he joins his new team.
“I’ve been saying many times, I don’t know where that comes from,” said Kovalev, who will embark on his 17th NHL season this fall. “Maybe when coaches say something to me and I don’t answer back, they think I don’t care.
“All I’ve been looking for in my career is that I have some kind of communication with my coach.”
Problems with communication helped lead to his departure after four full seasons and part of a fifth in Montreal, where his enigmatic style was revered by fans even if it ran him afoul of team management on occasion.
After Senators general manager Bryan Murray announced he’d signed Kovalev, it was revealed Monday that Canadiens GM Bob Gainey had offered the unrestricted free agent an identical deal to remain in Montreal.
Gainey said when Kovalev hesitated in getting back to him last Wednesday, the opening day of free agency, he went ahead with other deals, signing forwards Brian Gionta from New Jersey and Mike Cammalleri from Calgary until there was no money left for Kovalev.
“They didn’t give us much time,” Kovalev countered. “Everything happened so quick. We didn’t have much time and they went in the other direction.”
Kovalev admitted his first preference would have been to remain in Montreal so his children, Nikita, 7, and Ivan, 5, wouldn’t have to change schools and friends.
“We always choose what’s best for our lives and for our families,” he said. “When you’re 19, it’s different. Now, you have a family, it’s the first thing you think of.
“That’s the only way I look at it. I’m disappointed and feel bad for the kids.”
The move also leaves fans in Montreal disappointed.
He was so popular that they’d begun an online petition asking Gainey to sign him and make him captain. It had garnered 8,547 names by the time he’d signed in Ottawa. About a hundred fans also staged a rally outside of the Bell Centre on Sunday to show their support for bringing back Kovalev, who led the Canadiens with 26 goals and 65 points in 78 games last season.
And Kovalev did show that he cared. He said the fans would be what he missed most about Montreal.
“I saw the e-mail that a lot of fans sent and I saw the pictures (of the rally), I definitely appreciate it and I can’t find the words to say to the fans in Montreal. They gave me a lot of support.”
Still, Kovalev said he’s not bitter over the departure from the Canadiens and won’t be looking to exact any measure of revenge by joining their Northeast Division rivals.
“It’s not the first trade for me. It’s just part of the life, the way I look at it,” he said. “I don’t look at it like, ‘Oh, they didn’t sign me, I’m going to try to do damage (to them).”‘
He joins a Senators team that’s in clear need of a pick-me-up.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons this past spring, Ottawa is faced with its own player crisis after star left-winger Dany Heatley requested a trade just before last month’s NHL draft.
“I think Ottawa is a pretty good team,” Kovalev said of his reason for joining the Senators.
The Rangers, for whom Kovalev played and won his only Stanley Cup with, Islanders, and the Los Angeles Kings were also said to be interested in his services.
“I just felt that maybe something’s missing and maybe I can bring something to help them be competitive and try to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “They have one really good line … maybe I can be part of giving them a good second line and third line. I’m not a big believer that one line can do the damage on the way to winning a Stanley Cup.
“I’m not a young guy anymore and I’m looking forward to trying to win another Stanley Cup before I retire.”
During his time with the Canadiens, Kovalev proved that on some nights he could be among the most dominant of players in the NHL, but he also was guilty of disappearing on others.
He ran into problems with former Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau on more than one occasion, including being left at home from a road trip in February because of his indifferent play.
In Ottawa, where the Senators have run into problems with moody players before, dating back to the early days of Alexandre Daigle, Alexei Yashin and more recently Ray Emery and Heatley, the signing is being met with some hesitancy.
Kovalev disagrees with being labelled as enigmatic.
“I don’t know why people say that all the time about inconsistency. I always play the best I can,” he said. “Sometimes I try to do too much because I feel I can try to change the game. Sometimes it works and sometimes not, but I always play my hardest.”
With the Senators, Kovalev won’t be expected to carry the offensive load as much as he was in Montreal.
Even if Heatley doesn’t return, he’ll get a chance to play with some other proven offensive talents, such as Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson.
“I’m not trying to be the superstar and try to be a hero,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my best to help the team win the Stanley Cup. The Ottawa Senators have a lot of good players.”