WILL ILYA PLEASE STAND UP?
When does a star become a leader? That's what the Atlanta Thrashers would like to know when it comes to Ilya Kovalchuk.
As of the beginning of the week, the immensely talented Kovalchuk led the NHL in goals and was tied for fourth in points. But during the Thrashers' recent seven-game losing streak, Kovalchuk revealed on a number of occasions he is not yet the leader this team needs him to be.
During the slide that saw the team drop from sixth to 11th in the East, Kovalchuk went cold as ice on the score sheet, going six straight games without a goal before scoring Saturday night in a win over Florida that ended the team's skid.
Good players will compensate for those cold spells by not adding to the team's woes in other ways. They play hard. They stay out of the box. They work harder on their defensive assignments. Not Kovalchuk.
Against the Sabres last week, Kovalchuk was lazy on the backcheck as the Sabres scored a crucial short-handed goal en route to a 5-2 win. It was during the Sabres game that Kovalchuk was once again caught with an illegal stick. This time, instead of doing the Bourne Conspiracy and sneaking the offending stick onto the Thrashers' bench and down the hallway as was the case against Nashville last month, Kovalchuk was assessed a minor penalty that cost the Thrashers a crucial power play.
That Kovalchuk would continue to play with an illegal stick when everyone knows he has a habit of doing just that (Nashville coach Barry Trotz insists you can tell on television, so it can't be too hard to notice if you're standing next to him on the ice), shows he doesn't understand how this plays out in the dressing room. How do teammates feel about a guy who would rather indulge himself with a big curve than give his team the best chance to win?
Kovalchuk recently ducked a handful of reporters waiting to talk to him after he was moved to the third line. He told team officials he wanted to get some errands done before the team flew to Florida for a home-and-home set with the Panthers. Fair enough. But stand-up guys know when to duck and run, and when to answer questions. Until Kovalchuk understands that, he won't be one of those guys. Until he is, this team will continue to struggle. -- S.B.
CAUGHT IN THE NETS
SAME OL' SCOTTY
Scott Stevens bid an emotional farewell in New Jersey on Friday night, prompting another round of laments about the "good old days" and how a player like Stevens would never thrive in the new NHL. Stevens even suggested he'd probably have played football instead of hockey given the emphasis on skating and skill in the new game.
But a quick review of Stevens' legendary hits, the ones on Slava Kozlov, Eric Lindros, Ron Francis and Paul Kariya, brings us to ask this question: How would the new game have changed any of them? All of them were then considered legal within the rules of the game and they would be so now. All of them were big-time hits that changed the course of games, series, even careers. Big hits will continue to have that effect. Is it now more challenging to make a big hit? Yes. Because players aren't being held up going through the neutral zone as they have been for a generation, it takes better timing to lay out an opponent who's moving more quickly. Why is that such a bad thing?
We're wagering that Stevens still would have lowered the boom on just as many players today as yesterday. He was simply that kind of guy. New NHL or old. -- S.B.