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