Failed phenom Alexei Kovalev has rediscovered his game in

Early in the 1992-93 season, when Alexei Kovalev was a
19-year-old Rangers rookie who had recently arrived from Moscow,
he got lost for several hours driving in New York City. When he
finally got home, he encountered a friend who had been trying
frantically to find him. "Don't worry," Kovalev said. "I will
never disappear."

Kovalev was no prophet. During the next six seasons with the
Rangers he disappeared time and again by playing inconsistently
and thus often wound up on the bench. A strong, graceful skater
with a dangerous shot, Kovalev, whom New York traded to
Pittsburgh on Nov. 25 for center Petr Nedved, was repeatedly
billed by NHL observers as a potential 40-goal, 100-point
player. He could make defenders fall with his moves, yet he
tended to hold on to the puck too long and frequently gave it
away while trying to make the perfect play. The media attacked
Kovalev's shortcomings as selfishness, and Rangers coaches got
fed up with him.

"It was hard to be confident," says the 6'2", 215-pound Kovalev,
who never scored more than 24 goals or 58 points for New York.
"The coaches would say the team needed me, and then they
wouldn't give me ice time."

He's getting plenty of it in Pittsburgh, where coach Kevin
Constantine has told him to just play his game. Through Sunday,
Kovalev had 15 goals and 15 assists in 32 games with the
Penguins and--along with star right wing Jaromir Jagr--had been
the driving force behind a nine-game winning streak that put
Pittsburgh (29-15-7) in position to challenge the Flyers
(28-12-13) for the best record in the Eastern Conference. "He
has always been one of the most skilled players," says Jagr, the
front-runner for the Hart Trophy with a league-leading 81
points. "He's loose here. I remember we'd play the Rangers, and
each time they lost, everyone blamed him. How was he supposed to
play that way?"

Constantine's faith in Kovalev--who had averaged 20 minutes a
game for the Penguins and mans the point on the power play--has
transformed caution to courage. "When you play a lot, you don't
worry," Kovalev says. "You think about doing something to win
the game."

That attitude has paid off. In a 2-1 win over the Red Wings on
Feb. 7, Kovalev boldly intercepted a pass at the Detroit blue
line and swept in for a shorthanded goal. Two nights later, at
home against the Canadiens, he drove to the net in overtime and
scored the game-winner on a rebound of his own shot. Such plays,
and Constantine's assurance that "we want Alexei out there as
much as possible," shows that in Pittsburgh, Kovalev isn't about
to disappear.

General Managers' Poll

Lest you survey the Lightning roster and think Tampa Bay
(11-38-4 through Sunday) looks O.K. on paper, consider how NHL
general managers responded when we asked them to name the
league's most overrated player. Nearly 30% of the 21 respondents
fingered a member of the Lightning, with center Chris Gratton
receiving a league-high four votes and winger Alexandre Daigle
getting two. Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov and Sharks right
wing Owen Nolan were each cited three times, and nine players
were named on one ballot apiece.

Gratton, whom Tampa Bay picked third in the 1993 draft, seemed
on the cusp of his widely anticipated stardom after scoring a
career-best 30 goals for the Lightning in 1996-97. He became a
free agent that summer, and the Flyers signed him to a multiyear
deal that included a $9 million bonus. Gratton scored only 22
goals last year, however, and this season--he was traded back to
Tampa Bay in December--he had only three. "There was such a buzz
about him his first few years," said one general manager. "Not

Those who chose Nolan pointed to the 42 goals he scored as a
second-year player with the Nordiques in 1991-92 and the 30 he
had in 46 games in lockout-shortened '94-95 and said they were
puzzled by his meager 25-goal output over the past season and a
half. "I can't understand it," said one general manager of the
6'1", 205-pound Nolan. "The guy should be scoring 40 goals every
year--he's built like a bull."

Fedorov, too, was described as an underachiever. In the same
breaths, voters who dubbed him the most overrated also expressed
great respect for his skills. "He may be the third-most-talented
player in the league, behind [the Ducks'] Paul Kariya and [the
Avalanche's] Peter Forsberg," said one poll participant, "but
he's not there every night." Added another voter, who criticized
Fedorov for his inconsistency, "He's overrated, but it's
weird--you'd still want him on your team."

Robbie Ftorek

Devils coach Robbie Ftorek believes in having strong
relationships with his players, which is why he hand-delivers
their biweekly paychecks--a task more commonly performed in the
NHL by an in-house courier or the U.S. mail. While Ftorek
typically uses the payday encounters to ask about a player's
family or engage in banter, his presence with the booty imparts
a sense of accountability. "Sometimes a guy will say, 'Jeez, I
feel guilty taking it this week,'" Ftorek says.

Not that he encourages such thoughts. "Robbie likes to look you
in the eye to see if you feel you deserve it, but he's always
friendly and positive," says defenseman Sheldon Souray. "And
he's never given me a blank check. Knock on wood, though--the
season isn't over."

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Since being acquired from the Rangers, the acrobatic Kovalev has scored 30 points in 32 games. TWO COLOR PHOTOS


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