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Will Alexei Kovalev Answer the Call in Montreal?

By March 3, 2004

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For Alexei Kovalev, a man of dazzling skill but only occasionally dazzling results, Montreal presents an interesting challenge. In a trade no one anticipated, the Canadiens acquired Kovalev on Tuesday. Which Kovalev will show up to play for Les Glorieux? How will he handle the fish bowl life of a Montreal hockey player?

In return, the New York Rangers receive a 22-year-old forward, Josef Balej, and a second-round pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft. Balej has 58 points in 55 games with Hamilton in the AHL. If the Rangers are serious about rebuilding, you will see more trades like this, designed to stockpile draft picks and under-25 players.

For Kovalev, the deal ends a dreadful year in New York, the most dismal 12 months of his career. He was a top-ten scorer when the Rangers acquired him from Pittsburgh in February of 2003, but has since managed just 23 goals and 32 assists in 90 games.

"He's a good player, but for whatever reason - whether it was the chemistry or the mix - it just didn't work,'' Rangers assistant GM Don Maloney told reporters.

In other words, Kovalev's problems in New York were a reflection of the team, not the player. It's a plausible theory, and it will be put to the test in Montreal.

Kovalev is an unrestricted free agent this summer, so he is essentially a rent-a-player for the playoffs. His performance for the rest of this season will likely determine the size of his next contract, wherever it takes him. Most of this year's $6.6 million salary has been paid, making him a cheap upgrade for Montreal.

The Canadiens get a huge talent who does not always live up to huge expectations. Those expectations will not diminish in Montreal, a city of feverish hockey passions and crushing media attention. After a miserable year with the Rangers, the player has much to prove. The hockey world is watching.

So how does he respond to the challenge? Which Kovalev do the Canadiens get? The lost soul who played in New York? Or the stickhandling genius who can turn a game around in one shift?

For more on the latest trades, see The 2004 NHL Trade Ledger, analyzing all the deals leading up to the March 9 deadline.

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