Alex Kovalev retired this week, ending what might have been one of the most underappreciated careers in NHL history.
And it still might have been a Hall of Fame career.
Throughout his 19 years in the NHL in which he played more than 1,300 regular-season games, Kovalev was constantly dogged with a number of labels, almost all of them due to some combination of his perceived laziness and disinterest. The "enigma" label, which seems almost exclusively reserved for Russian players, seemed to be the most common.
All of that is hard for me to accept when you consider that he was still playing in the NHL until the age of 40, something that's probably impossible to do if you're lazy and aren't always interested in being as good as you can be. You couldn't play in a beer league at the age of 40 if you were lazy and disinterested, let alone the best professional hockey league in the world.
But forget the silly labels for a minute, or how he might have fallen short of the ridiculous and almost unreacheable expectations that were thrown on him throughout his career, and remember that the guy was a magnificent talent. More importantly, he was an extremely productive player both in the regular season and playoffs, and in the 1990s was one of the most important players when it came to Russians making the jump to the NHL.
He was a game-changer in just about every way.
When the Rangers selected him in the first round (No. 15 overall) of the 1991 draft it was the first time a Russian player had been selected in the first round of the NHL draft. When he made his debut for the Rangers in 1992 he made an instant impact, and was eventually a vital player in their 1994 Stanley Cup run, finishing as their third-leading scorer in the playoffs with 21 points in 23 games at the age of 20.
He was one of the first Russian-born players to get his name on the Stanley Cup.
He was also the last active player in the NHL from that Rangers Cup team.
He averaged more points per game in the playoffs (.82) than he did during the regular season (.78).
He finished his career in the top-70 all-time in both goals (430) and points (1,029) while playing the bulk of his career, including what should have been his prime years between the ages of 22 and 27, in the lowest-scoring era in NHL history (also known as the dead-puck era).
Kovalev seems like that kind of player who was so ridiculously talented, so absurdly skilled, that things came so easy for him on the ice and he didn't have to look like he was skating a thousand miles per hour to get from point A to point B. That makes it easy for people to look at him as a player and conclude he was lazy or not always interested.
It always seemed like there were some unrealistic expectations following him around that, given his talent, he almost had to be the best player in the league to not be viewed as a disappointment (the whole, "he could be great if he wanted to be" thing). TSN's Scott Cullen addressed these last two points in a 2011 column when talking about Kovalev and the curse of elite talent.
I don't know that his career makes him a lock for the Hall of Fame. If he gets in, he's probably going to have to wait quite a while for enshrinement. Just look at how long Pavel Bure, unquestionably one of the NHL's greatest goal-scorers, had to wait. Eric Lindros, who was one of the two or three best players in the league (and maybe even at some point the best) for an eight-year stretch between 1992 and 2000 is still waiting.
But I think there's enough here to eventually get him in when you take into account what he did on the ice. There are players currently in with less impressive careers that didn't make anywhere near the impact on the game that Kovalev did.