by Kevin Conway
Alexei Kovalev is back in a New York Rangers’ uniform. After weeks of rumors and speculation, Glen Sather pulled a deal to bring one of the most skilled offensive players in the world back to Madison Square Garden , the place where he started his career.
Every Rangers’ fan remembers the excitement that Kovalev brought to the Garden. He was a magician with the puck. It seemed like he could defy the laws of physics. Of course there were times when it seemed like he was playing by himself out there. For every big goal he scored, for every death-defying skating trick he pulled, there was a play where he’d skate in circles all over the rink, refusing to give up the puck. For every great memory we have of Alexei Kovalev contributing to the 1993-1994 Stanley Cup run, there is a painful memory of him hanging at the red line, refusing to play defense.
Despite these lapses, Alexei Kovalev is a much more mature player now. He’ll never be a great defensive forward, but his offensive skills more than atone for his defensive shortcomings. He is, without a doubt, one of the most skilled offensive players in the world. There isn’t a team in the NHL that wouldn’t love to add a player of Kovalev’s character to their squad. Many Rangers’ fans were concerned, however, that it would be impossible to bring him back without sacrificing the team’s future. The Rangers surprisingly were able to pull off the deal without giving up too much.
According to several reports, the Rangers refused a deal that would have brought Kovalev back to the Big Apple for Jamie Lundmark and Dan Blackburn. As exciting as the thought of Kovalev back in Rangers’ blue is, this deal would have hung a black cloud over the Rangers’ already bleak future.
Jamie Lundmark is finally starting to show flashes that would explain his status as a top-10 draft pick. Although he clearly has to work on his physical play, he is showing some scoring touch. Maybe Lundmark will never be a bona fide first line center in the NHL, but there’s no reason he couldn’t become a solid playmaker. Now is not the time to give up on him. He’s finally being given a chance to succeed and he is making the most of his opportunity.
The prospect of a future without Dan Blackburn is even more frightening. Rangers’ fans must accept the fact that Mike Richter is probably never going to play again, and if he does return he will only be a shadow of his former self. While Mike Dunham is a very solid goaltender, it is clear that Blackburn is the future of the organization. Granted, he has looked shaky at times, but we shouldn’t forget the enormous burden that he was asked to shoulder at the beginning of the season. Try to ignore Blackburn ’s numbers. He is a 19-year-old goaltender who plays with the poise of a grizzled veteran. He has a short memory, which is very important for a goalie. If he gets shelled one night, he comes back strong and confident the next. Mechanics can be taught, poise cannot. Let’s also not forget how bad the Rangers are defensively. Blackburn had to stand on his head to get a lot of the victories that he did.
Instead of losing the few players that might actually give Rangers’ fans something to cheer about in five years, Sather was able to get Kovalev for spare parts and cash. While the exact amount of money is yet to be officially reported, the loss of a few million dollars is obviously not something to worry about when the team has a nearly unlimited budget. Mikael Samuelsson is one of the only Rangers who consistently played defense and hustled. He will obviously be missed, but you can’t get something for nothing. Obviously, Samuelsson is not good enough to play defense all by himself, and it would be very surprising if the Rangers looked much worse defensively than they already do. Rico Fata will probably never be more than a third-line player. It’s hard to not appreciate his speed and his willingness to work hard, but once again, his loss is negligible. Joel Bouchard and Richard Linter are borderline NHL players. While both have made occasional contributions, neither are a key component of the team.
The Rangers also got some bodies in return. While they’re not an impressive bunch, they might be able to contribute. Janne Laukannen will make up for the loss of Bouchard and Linter if he can stay healthy, which admittedly is a risky proposition. Dan LaCouture is clearly only a fourth-line player, but he can step in and fill the spot now vacated by Rico Fata. He is a hard worker and tries to make up for his lack of skill with toughness and hustle. Mike Wilson is nowhere near ready to play in the NHL and may not ever make it, but if you’re going to take a risk on a defenseman, he might as well be enormous ( Wilson is 6’ 6”).
As fond as our memories of Brian Leetch, Mark Messier, and Mike Richter are, they are not going to be in Rangers’ uniforms for much longer. There is very little in the team’s farm system to replace them. Pavel Brendl, Manny Malhotra, Kim Johnsson, and Tomas Kloucek are now just names from the Rangers’ past. Outside of Lundmark and Blackburn , there is very little young talent in the organization to get excited about. Dale Purinton could turn into the stay-at-home defenseman that the team has sorely lacked since the retirement of Jeff Beukeboom, but it will take a great deal of restraint for the Rangers to not deal him at the trade deadline. Outside of Garth Murray and Fedor Tyutin, most of the prospects in the farm system are huge question marks at best. Congratulations are in order for Glen Sather for making the right deal for Alexei Kovalev. Clearly, he is not what the Rangers need in the long-term. Until this team develops some chemistry and learns to play defense, all the snipers in the world won’t help them. But this deal works because of the small price we had to pay. While I don’t agree with many of the deals that Glen Sather has made in his tenure, I’ll be the first to line up and praise him for pulling the trigger on this deal