Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"You're grounded"

Is that not essentially what Bob Gainey did Tuesday when he asked Alex Kovalev to go home and "rest" rather than join the team for this two-game trip to Washington and Pittsburgh?

Gainey spoke about how this stretch has been a physically and mentally demanding one, and also how much of a burden Kovalev was carrying around with him because of how poorly he's played this season and the impact that play has had on the team.

But really, this is not about rest. This is about Kovalev's consistently erratic play finally pushing Gainey over the edge.

"He's proud, he's a strong athlete," Gainey said of Kovalev's reaction when he heard the news. "He doesn't want to leave his team, he doesn't want to not be with the team when he feels they need him most. He was not in direct agreement with me, but at the same time I think he felt that he could trust me enough that my decision, my suggestion, my request, could be positive for him and positive for the team."

Gainey said Kovalev's situation will be re-evaluated at the end of the week, but I would be stunned to see him wear a Canadiens uniform again. How could he come back to the team now, especially considering that pride Gainey spoke about? And if he did come back, could we have any reasonable expectation that he'll actually play better?

Of course not.

But if he did - and that is an "if" the size of Texas - then this whole episode will turn out to be perhaps the most brilliant personality management of all time. Guy Carbonneau obviously couldn't get through to Kovalev, so now Gainey has handled the situation and put his stamp on this season in a far greater way than he did by acquiring Mathieu Schneider (how'd you like your first day on the job, by the way?).

"The team doesn't need Alex the way he's playing now," Gainey told reporters in French.

Later, speaking in English, he added, "He's the kind of player who's judged by his production. He's judged on how many goals he scores, how many points he scores. That's the bottom line for a player like him. How he gets there is the place where the confusion is. To score goals and to help other players to score goals you have to do a lot of different things."

That, to me, sounds like a player whose days are finished. If the team turns it around from here on in then Gainey is painted as a genius, but if they tank even further than they already have it will be on his shoulders. Furthermore, if Kovalev does in fact come back to the team and starts to rip it up, then Gainey's brilliance will go down in Habs lore.

It was a gutsy, decisive move, and for that reason alone I like it.

Perhaps this will open the eyes of someone like Andrei Kostitsyn, who will now be called on to fulfill his potential immediately and on a nightly basis, not just in fits and spurts as has been his habit this season. If they can do this to Kovalev, they can do it to Kostitsyn. At least that's what you have to hope he thinks.

Same goes for Tomas Plekanec, Christopher Higgins, the entire defence, and even Saku Koivu, because all of them can be playing better and should be playing better.

But in reality, the Habs without Kovalev playing at his best are not a contending team. Not even close. There are a lot of good offensive players on the team, but Kovalev is the closest thing to a great one, at least in terms of talent, and Gainey himself mentioned Kovalev's heightened performance in playoff situations.

So this now turns into probably the most intriguing week in recent Canadiens history. How does the team respond to this? What will they do with Kovalev? If he's traded, will he be given away as a rental? Can the Canadiens afford not to replace his talent up front? Who would take on a head case like this, and more importantly who would give up a roster player for him right now?

In my opinion, I have to believe Kovalev's trade value has never been lower, so if Gainey does decide to part ways with him there would likely be little more than a draft pick coming back. Will the Canadiens be a better team without him? Is addition by subtraction really the answer?

I'm not sure, but Gainey's entire tenure as general manager here could hinge on those very questions, because he's clearly put his neck on the line at a pivotal point in the season.

And for that he has to be applauded.


Anonymous said...

Let me begin by saying that I instinctively trust Bob Gainey. That said, I am not convinced that Kovalev is at the root of this slump. I don't have the insider access you do Arps, but I have been watching the last few games, and while there are moments that Kovalev coasts, there are also many moments where he is working hard, getting chances, but not burying them. As for the coasting, that has always been and will always be part of his game -- you don't change your stripes at age 35. From my humble perspective, slumps happen to teams. And we are in the midst of a doozy, but it is a team slump, not a Kovalev slump. I think it is obvious that we are being outworked, night in and night out. We don't win the battles on the boards, the one on ones, whether it is Lappy, Begin, Koivu, or Komisarek, we are just getting outworked. Plain and simple. We have had a few brief flashes of the work the Habs are capable of -- but a few minutes here and there won't win games. But slumps end, and so will this one. And from my humble perspective, it will be a real shame if Kovalev's career ends on this note. Maybe there is a lot going on that we don't know about that made Gainey do this, and I do trust Bob, but I think Kovy deserves better, and I think we should stand by him -- he still has what it takes to lead the team come playoff time.

Anonymous said...

This is such a dead-on assessment of the situation. Excellent work Arpon!

Sliver24 said...

Anonymous person #1:

You're right, this is a team slump, but remember that Kovy is supposed to be one of the biggest parts of the team.

I'd say Gainey did this as much for shock value in the room as hi did to straighten Kovalev out. Even more, actually, since Kovy's not playing for the next two days, so the onus to play better lands on every other player on the team.

Washington had better be prepared for a serious onslaught to start the game tonight. Mark my words, the boys are going to come out swinging.

What worries me is the possibility that the Habs keep the pressure on but don't bury one early. If Washington then gets a weak goal or even a good one on some chintzy penalty call but the moronic refs (please God, don't let it be Chris Lee), the air will go out of the balloon and we'll be in real trouble.

The entire effect of both the trade and the benching will be lost for good.

We need a good start that produces some results early. If this doesn't right the ship I'm not sure where Gainey can go from here.

Anonymous said...

this is exactly why i disagree with the way gainey handled this situation: "What worries me is the possibility that the Habs keep the pressure on but don't bury one early. If Washington then gets a weak goal or even a good one on some chintzy penalty call but the moronic refs (please God, don't let it be Chris Lee), the air will go out of the balloon and we'll be in real trouble.

The entire effect of both the trade and the benching will be lost for good."

kovalev or not - this does not change. if it wakens the team then i'll start to be convinced but otherwise it just looks like another desperate move.