OTTAWA – As the Senators paraded new signing Alex Kovalev before fans and the media Tuesday, Ottawa GM manager Bryan Murray offered up an interesting proposition – the idea that disgruntled star Dany Heatley could still return and play alongside the highly skilled Kovalev.
“We can fit both of those guys on our team very nicely, maybe one on left and one on right wing,” Murray said after presenting Kovalev with the No. 27 shirt during an introductory news conference at Scotiabank Place.
The Senators signed the 36-year-old Russian to a US$10-million two-year deal on July 6.
Accompanied by his wife, Eugenia, Kovalev said he’s looking forward to joining the Sens, a team that needs new blood after a disappointing season in 2008-09.
“Sometimes you see teams make changes and go through different players, so it’s understandable (they struggle),” Kovalev said. “This team, I was surprised with the players offensively and defensively they have, that they weren’t successful.”
“Hopefully, I’ll bring that little spark or whatever that this team is missing,” he added.
The Senators are at a standstill with Heatley since the left-winger asked for a trade during the Stanley Cup final, citing his unhappiness with his diminished ice time and role with the team since Cory Clouston took over as coach in February after Craig Hartsburg was fired.
Heatley, who holds a no-trade agreement, and his agents, Stacey McAlpine and J.P. Barry, vetoed a deal earlier this month that would have seen him move to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for forwards Andrew Cogliano and Dustin Penner and defenceman Ladislav Smid. There’s been no movement since.
Kovalev, who spent the past four full seasons and part of a fifth with the Montreal Canadiens before walking away as an unrestricted free agent, said if given the opportunity to speak with Heatley, he’d urge the two-time 50-goal scorer to return to Ottawa’s lineup.
The two played together during the 2004-05 season in Russia with Ak Bars Kazan during the NHL lockout.
“Definitely, with the player that he is, it would be nice to have him back,” Kovalev said. “I know Dany a little bit from playing with him for Kazan in the lockout year. He’s a great, talented guy on the ice and off the ice and would definitely help the Senators organization and hopefully will continue to help the organization”.
Recently, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson admitted that he’d tried to contact the 28-year-old Heatley, who spends his summers near Kelowna, B.C., but had yet to have his call returned.
Kovalev, no stranger to dealing with the fans and media under the spotlight in Montreal, said the ill-will that Heatley’s stance has caused in Ottawa isn’t beyond repair.
The Russian was so beloved in Montreal that fans urged Canadiens GM Bob Gainey to re-sign him, even staging a public rally outside of the Bell Centre in the days leading up to the July 1 opening of the free-agency period.
“It’s up to you guys,” Kovalev said. “If you make it more comfortable for him, then I’m sure he’d probably have no problem to stay”.
Murray said given the events of the past season, culminating with Heatley’s trade request, the addition of Kovalev was a step in the right direction away from “tough times.
“To be able to sign Alex Kovalev for the Ottawa Senators was, I thought, the best news we could bring to the city for a long time,” Murray said, dismissing concerns that Kovalev has often been viewed as an enigmatic player. “I think it’s a tremendous signing. It’s an impact signing.
Interestingly, among a group of young fans invited to the news conference was a fan who was the first to purchase a Senators shirt with Kovalev’s name and number on the back from one of the team’s official stores. The fan claimed he’d bought the shirt on July 1 – five days before the signing was officially announced”.
Kovalev received a tour of the Senators’ dressing room. Ironically, his sweaters were hung in the locker space once occupied by goaltender Ray Emery, whose free-spirited ways eventually led to his departure from Ottawa.
Whether Kovalev is given that stall on a permanent basis remains to be seen, as does his impact on the Senators, but he again bristles at the notion that he’s been a disruptive force in the past.
“I’ve never had trouble with the coaches,” he said in trying to clear up misconceptions about his play. “I wish I could change certain situations that I’ve had in my career”.
“Night after night I compete and I’ve made changes in my game . . . sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I guess it’s up to me to bring them on my side.”
Kovalev said he would miss Montreal and that learning of the fans’ reaction to his leaving “break your heart.”
But he was happy to stay in the NHL. He was thought to have offers to return to Russia and play in the Kontinental Hockey League instead.
“I felt if I’d signed in Russia, that probably would have been my last time to play,” he said. “My first priority was trying to sign here and play as long as I can”.
“The only thing left is to put that fun in the locker-room.”