by Jim Samuels
It’s been three years – almost to the day – since the big deal that sent Ranger fan favorite Alexei Kovalev to the Pittsburgh Penguins for centerman Petr Nedved. Kovalev, a former first round draft pick taken 15th overall in the 1991 draft was an integral part of the Blueshirts 1994 Stanley Cup winning team, tallied 23 goals during the regular season that year and also played a huge role in helping the Captain carry out his guarantee in Game 6 of the Conference Finals against the Devils. But Kovalev’s defensive mishaps and penchant for overstaying his shifts quickly eroded any remaining confidence the Blueshirt brass had in the talented winger, his time on Broadway had finally run it’s course.
So on November 25th 1998, former GM Neil Smith decided he had seen enough and dealt the enigmatic winger to Pittsburgh for Nedved, who was to begin his second tour of duty on Broadway. Nedved, who was initially acquired by the Rangers in exchange for Doug Lidster and Esa Tikkanen in the aftermath of the Mike Keenan fiasco, had struggled mightily in his first go-round with the Blueshirts. The talented Czech recorded 11 goals and 12 assists in 46 matches during the lockout shortened 1994-95 season, which included a much heralded clash with a Captain who repeatedly questioned Nedved’s toughness and desire.
Prior to the 1995-96 season, Smith frustrated with the Czech’s inconsistent play, dealt Nedved along with puck moving defensemen Sergei Zubov to Pittsburgh for hard hitting defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and sniper Luc Robitaille. This ill-fated deal would come back to haunt the Blueshirts as Robitaille struggled offensively and the aging Samuelsson could not consistently play his trademark in your face style which had made him one of the most feared hitters in the league.
Since moving to Pittsburgh Kovalev has flourished in the Penguins freelancing, wide-open style, averaging 30 goals and 69 points over his three full seasons in the Steel City. Meanwhile Nedved had become the Rangers offensive leader and top line center for this team in transition. The 30 year-old centerman (who recently signed a three year deal with the Blueshirts) has averaged 25 goals and 64 points during his second tour on Broadway despite going against the oppositions best players night in and night out. Amazingly, Nedved had managed to put up a plus-14 +/- rating during his 3+ seasons playing for a team that has been consistently under .500 and has missed the playoff’s each of the past four seasons.
If you break it down, in 236 games Kovalev has averaged .93 points per game, only slightly better than Nedved who, in 234 games over the same period has averaged .90 points per game. Yes, across the board Kovalev’s numbers are marginally better, but keep in mind those numbers have been compiled while playing on a far superior team that for the past three season’s has included the best player on the planet.
Nedved has made his linemates better players, Radek Dvorak had never approached the numbers he put up last season prior to being teamed with his fellow countrymen. Dvorak averaged 15 goals over his first four seasons before topping the 30 goal mark in his first full season on Broadway. The since departed Jan Hlavac, who had a breakout season alongside Nedved tallying 28 goals for the Blueshirts last season, has struggled mightily with the Flyers tallying just 7 points over the teams first 23 games.
This looks like one of those rare deals that in the long run will work out for both teams. However, one question will always linger, Would Kovalev have been able to post similar numbers for a franchise in transition such as the Rangers have been over the past three seasons ? Early returns on the deal may be leaning slightly towards Pittsburgh, but now with a solid supporting cast Nedved is no longer the go to guy on the Rangers. For the first time as a member of the Rangers he can finally slide into the second line center position for which he is best suited.
With the addition of Eric Lindros not many teams can match a one-two punch at center the likes of Lindros and Nedved, add to that the presence of the Captain and the inevitable emergence of former first round pick Jamie Lundmark and the Blueshirts seem set at the center ice position for the foreseeable future. Only now will Nedved’s 30 goal, 80 point season’s be properly appreciated, few teams can boast the type of production the Blueshirts figure to get out of their number two pivot.
The debate goes on, early returns are shifting this deal only slightly the way of the Penguins. However, with a new and improved supporting cast the Blueshirts should expect to see a jump in No 93’s offensive production. Kovalev, who has been slowed by injuries early on, may see his production drop a bit with the departure of No 68. and the impending health problems of Super Mario. The debate goes on.