Alex Kovalev found out on Thursday – his 38th birthday – that the Ottawa Senators had traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he had played from 1998-2003.
“It was the best birthday present I could ask for,” he said.
Kovalev still has a lot of friends in Pittsburgh he keeps in touch with, who all texted and emailed him Thursday when they heard the news.
They’re ecstatic to have Kovalev back in the Steel City – and he’s excited about returning.
“In Pittsburgh I was able to really show my talent and help the team, and I had a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s always been a great organization and the people have always been great to me.”
Kovalev, a two-time NHL All-Star during his five seasons in Pittsburgh, scored 347 points (149G-198A) through 345 games in the black and gold. His best season came in the 2000-01 campaign, when he scored 44 goals and added 51 assists for 95 points.
When asked why he thought he played the best hockey of his career to date during his time with the Penguins, Kovalev acknowledged that the people he worked with in Pittsburgh understood his talent and gave him the freedom to explore his capabilities.
But then he also offered up how at the time, a change of scenery revitalized him after spending the first seven seasons of his career with the New York Rangers.
“Maybe the change also sometimes helps,” he said. “When you get with certain teams and you’re not playing well and you’re going deep into a hole and you just can’t recover, I think sometimes change makes a big difference.”
That’s exactly what Penguins general manager Ray Shero is hoping for this time around as well.
“This is one of these things that when we make deals like this, I go back to the Billy Guerin situation,” Shero said. “Billy was with the New York Islanders at the time – Billy was not playing well. And we took a chance on him based upon certain things. The same with Alexei Kovalev.
“Their team is not having the season they expected, and it’s difficult to play in those situations. So we’re taking the chance that he’ll translate his game and his skill level in playing here in Pittsburgh. I think he’s going to play like Billy Guerin. He’s a proud player, he’ll want to do well. That’s the hope.”
While Kovalev isn’t quite the same player he was during his first tour of duty with Pittsburgh, he still possesses the elite skillset that will help rejuvenate an injury-decimated Penguins squad, and is confident he can chip in right away.
“I know the team is going through a lot of adversity,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not easy having so many guys out of the lineup, but we’ll do our best. This team seems to me, that even with all the injured guys, they’re doing a pretty good job. All I want to try to do right away is fill up that hole that they’re missing and contribute in the best way possible.”