23-24 . . .


    27 . Kovalchuk shows NHL scouts a fistful of reasons why he should be first player taken in upcoming draft 

    By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer 

    NHL scouts rave about the terrific passing skills of Ilya Kovalchuk, but this probably isn't what they had in mind. 
    Minutes after having lunch in a cafeteria full of Steelers at the UPMC Sports Complex on Friday, Kovalchuk and a few of his Russian friends playfully sprinted to the indoor football field to try their hand at a sport most of them had never seen until three weeks ago, when they first arrived in town. 

    Kovalchuk, on his first touch, took a three-step drop and unleashed a 40-yard tight spiral to nail his receiver right between the numbers. And when the ball was tossed back in his direction, he coolly glided back to let it sail over his shoulder for a basket catch. 

    It's probably a good thing for the AtlantaThrashers that Bill Cowher wasn't watching. 

    On the ice, Kovalchuk is a left winger with the speed of a running back, the savvy of a quarterback and the snarl of a linebacker. He is the consensus best player available in the NHL Entry Draft June 23, and sources inside the Atlanta organization have made it clear that, barring a trade, they will take Kovalchuk with an eye toward building the franchise around him. 
    He has a baby face, having turned 18 only a month ago. But his thick-as-brick, 6-foot-2, 207-pound frame belies his age, as does his confident demeanor. 

    Speaking through an interpreter, he allowed a small smile when asked if he can star in the NHL. 
    "I just want to get drafted," he said. "That's my only goal right now, and then maybe make the NHL team in my first year. I realize that in my first year I'm not going to be a superstar." 

    No, probably not. But implicit in that response was that it might not take long after that. 

    Kovalchuk, training in Pittsburgh for the six weeks leading up to the draft, attended the Penguins' two home games in the Eastern Conference final last week. He came away impressed but not overwhelmed. And that's probably because he didn't see anything on the ice that he can't do. 

    Those who have seen him play compare him in superlative terms to some of the best Russians in NHL history. They say he has Pavel Bure's first step. Sergei Samsonov's quickness. Alexander Mogilny's shot. Alexei Kovalev's stickhandling. Boris Mironov's brute strength. And the fighting prowess of ... well, himself. 

    There is little precedent for a Russian who drops the gloves, mostly because such offenses are punishable by a game misconduct at all levels of hockey there. 

    That never stopped Kovalchuk. 

    "I'm a young guy, and I always had to play against a lot of older guys when I was growing up, so I always had to defend myself," he said. "I don't go looking for fights. But if I see a teammate in trouble, I will go to help him every time. I like to play with a lot of emotion." 

    Too much, at times. And that might represent the greatest challenge for Atlanta or whichever team ends up drafting him and developing him. Kovalchuk is a wild, kicking thoroughbred with the ability to outrace anyone, as long as he keeps his eyes on the track. 

    Perhaps the best way to describe his talent is by citing not a Russian player who made it to the NHL, but the greatest one who never had the chance. His hero was the legendary Valeri Kharlamov, a hulking figure who starred in the early 1970s and went on to become the greatest scorer in his country's history. He died before Kovalchuk was born, but that didn't keep Kovalchuk from studying him and wearing his No. 17 in tribute throughout his career. 

    "I have seen him on video only, but I think I know what a great player he was," Kovalchuk said. "I loved Kharlamov as a player. I don't think I have ever patterned my game after anyone else, but he is the greatest player I have seen." 

    Such are the expectations for Kovalchuk in Russia that his name and that of Kharlamov frequently are mentioned in the same breath. 

    Kovalchuk grew up in the city of Tver, about a two-hour drive from Moscow, and started skating when he was 5. His father, Valeri, had been a prominent basketball player in town, but he had no issues with his son's passion for hockey. 

    "Right from the beginning, he thought it was great," Kovalchuk said. "It was my dad's dream to watch me excel in anything." 
    It didn't take long. From the time he was 7, he was so far ahead of the other boys his age, he was shoved ahead to face older competition. But he never flinched, never showed it was too much for him. 

    By the time he was 15, he already had gained the attention of NHL scouts, with some boldly predicting he would become the best player in the world for his age group. And this past year, when a few in hockey circles began touting Canadian center Jason Spezza as a threat to be taken No. 1 overall, Kovalchuk took it personally. 

    The only time those two faced each other was in January during the World Junior Championships in Moscow. Russia won, 3-1, and Kovalchuk was the only man of the two to score. He coasted in on a breakaway in front of an empty net, pumping his fist into the air twice while cradling the puck with his other hand, then flicking it in. 

    Afterward, Canada defenseman Steve McCarthy fumed, "He'll get his," and Kovalchuk wasn't done riling up the Canadians. When reporters asked him after the game about Spezza, he replied, "I think his skating is not very good." 

    Whether he was misquoted or simply overcome by emotion at the time, he is engaging in no such trash talk anymore. 
    "I played against him one time, and I don't really know him," Kovalchuk said. "I just wanted to be the No. 1 pick for myself, and that had nothing to do with Jason. I believed in myself that I could be the No. 1 pick." 

    During the past year, as a member of Spartak Moscow, Kovalchuk also disproved a few doubts that he was a team player. 
    Although he still has a tendency to try to do too much himself with the puck, his motivation all season was clear. Spartak was a second-tier team in Russian hockey, and it needed to win its division to move up to the next level. Kovalchuk had vowed before the season that his team would accomplish that feat, and he backed his words by leading the club with 16 goals and 15 assists in 28 games to ensure it did. 

    "That meant so much to me," he said. "That was my first goal, to help my teammates move up." 

    His potential new teammates, the Thrashers, invited him to Atlanta last week to tour their arena, meet with club management and, just for fun, attend a Braves game at Turner Field. 

    "I really liked it," Kovalchuk said. "They treated me very well. I know they're a new team, and I think they can be a good team. Besides, if I go there, I would maybe have the opportunity to step in and play right away. They have no stars there." 

    Less than a month from now, that might no longer hold true.