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Top Shelf: Time to cut ties with Kovalev

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Even by Alex Kovalev’s standards, things are getting a little kooky.

Bob Gainey, the GM of a team that’s coming completely unraveled, told his most skilled player to stay home while the Montreal Canadiens hit the road for back-to-back games beginning Wednesday night in Washington.

Kovalev is not suspended. He hasn’t been told to await a trade. He didn’t say something about his ex-girlfriend that earned him a trip to therapy. He’s simply playing so far below his capabilities Gainey believes he has no recourse other than to banish Kovalev for a couple days to think about what he has – or more specifically, hasn’t – done.

Gainey reminds me of a parent whose child violated his trust to such a degree he completely bypassed being mad and went straight to a state of debilitating disappointment. Quite simply, I don’t think he can stomach seeing Kovalev’s face right now, let alone his turnovers.

Kovalev, by his very nature, pushes people to the brink. It’s actually funny, in a perverse way, to contemplate the emotional swings he evokes in others because I swear he emits the same emotionless expression whether he just made a turnover that cost his team the game, went coast-to-coast and netted an overtime winner or saved three kittens from a burning tree.

The guy is maddening and even Gainey, clearly a very patient, level-headed man, is starting to give.

So to what end does Gainey take this, to my knowledge, unprecedented action?

I used this space last week to suggest the Habs should seriously think about dealing the nearly 36-year-old Russian. Manic as Kovalev’s play is, Gainey would surely find a fellow GM willing to take the chance he’s about to catch Kovalev on an upswing, just in time for the playoffs. The rule of thumb when it comes to desperation in the NHL is, somebody else’s situation is always more dire than yours.

Or maybe Gainey is trying to apply a little heat under Kovalev’s butt by humiliating him publicly. His outward expression may not change much, but Kovalev, like any pro athlete, is still driven by ego and subject to embarrassment. There’s no way for him to internally reconcile this recent move other than to confront the fact his boss believes the team is better off without him. Maybe Gainey, in the role of parent, is picturing Kovalev having a Macaulay Culkin-esque revelation tomorrow when he realizes he’s home alone while his team carries on without him.

Then again, the fastest path to crazy is sitting around, expecting Kovalev to change. The truth is, the switch could flick at any moment with this guy, but even if he’s in the ‘on’ position for a few weeks, how long before he flips back right past ‘off’ and firmly into ‘comatose?’

The Canadiens need to distance themselves from this rollercoaster of emotion. It would help Montreal change the identity of a team not performing up to its capabilities. Coach Guy Carbonneau has already taken a small step in that direction by asking Gainey to send slippery Sergei Kostitsyn to the American League and replace him with checker Gregory Stewart. Gainey can severely expedite the process by moving Kovalev out for a pick and a prospect.

It feels, in some ways, like Gainey has already made the decision to move on. His team desperately needs points at this juncture and with four of them on the line, he’s told Kovalev to put his time and energy into something other than floating through another pair of games.

It’s not unthinkable that Kovalev could respond to this shock therapy with an electric play for two or three games. Or five. Hey, maybe even make it an even 10. But Kovalev is not Kostitsyn; he’s not some kid trying to learn how to consistently get the most out of his talent. Expecting Kovalev to always perform at a high level would be like clinging to the idea you might live through a Montreal winter without enduring some very cold temperatures; hold your breath all you want, at some point you’re going to see it.

By sending Kovalev to the corner, Gainey has indicated he’s hit the wall with this guy. The only way for Montreal to take collective steps toward sanity and prosperity is to ship him off to a club in need of talent and nothing else. Just throw in a bottle of aspirin as a sign of good faith, Bob.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

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