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Cullen: Alex Kovalev and the curse of elite talent

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Scott Cullen
8/10/2011 10:27:27 AM
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As Alex Kovalev has left the NHL for the KHL, firing shots at reporters and coach Cory Clouston this week, a conflicting picture gets painted over a player that played 1,302 games, scoring 428 goals and 1024 points (along with 45 goals and 100 points in 123 playoff games), won a Stanley Cup and was often regarded as the most talented player on virtually every team for which he played.

Given those accomplishments, why would there be a downside to consider?

In Kovalev's case, to some degree at least, it's because he was cursed with superior talent.

When a player has Kovalev-like talent, expectations are going to be astronomical and, when it comes to Kovalev specifically, it's incongruous for fans to hear other NHL players talk in reverential tones about Kovalev's outrageous skill level, then see that in his last seven NHL seasons, he had three years in which he scored at least 65 points and four seasons in which he tallied fewer than 20 goals and 50 points.

So, when David Perron (an elite stickhandler in his own right) and Mike Commodore came to Kovalev's defence on Twitter they, not surprisingly, met resistance from fans that haven't consistently seen results commensurate with Kovalev's other-wordly skill.

At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year, there was a panel in which the topic of underachievers was discussed and NBA star Tracy McGrady's name was brought up by both former coach (Jeff Van Gundy) and GM (Darryl Morey), as a phenomenally gifted player that could accomplish so much due to his skill level that he wasn't necessarily driven to work on other facets of his game and it may have caught up to him when the competition picked up (ie. the playoffs).

Recently retired NFLer Randy Moss would hardly be considered an underachiever in the classic sense, but the common perception was that, as great as he was, scoring 153 touchdowns in his career, Moss could have been even better if he had the drive of Jerry Rice, for example.

Some parallels might be drawn to Kovalev. Not that he struggled in the postseason; since 1990, his 45 playoff goals ranks 23rd in the league. But, as age caught up to Kovalev, like it catches up to all eventually, he couldn't just get by on being the most talented puckhandler on the ice and the results weren't good.

Beyond the goal or point totals, though, the evidence that Kovalev was not a factor in his last two seasons could be found in shots on goal numbers. In 2009-2010, Kovalev managed 2.14 shots on goal per game (165 in 77 games) and followed up with a career-low 2.04 per game (151 in 74 games) last year after finishing with a miserable 1.40 per game (28 in 20 games) with Pittsburgh. At his peak, Kovalev was putting up nearly four shots on goal per game and even had 2.80 per game as recently as 2007-2008.

That Kovalev's play declined in recent seasons is no indictment of his entire career, however. Many great players have seen dramatic drops in production as they hit the twilights of their careers, so Kovalev isn't necessarily any different in that regard.

Where Kovalev tends to get burned in the court of public perception is that his talent suggested a player capable of being more dominant if he applied himself more consistently. 

Fans see what Kovalev did for Montreal in 2007-2008, scoring 84 points in 82 games as a 34-year-old or a three-year stretch from 2000-2003 during which Kovalev scored 248 points in 224 games and wonder why there weren't more of those electrifying seasons.

The picture painted by Kovalev's talent is that he should have managed more than three point-per-game seasons in 18 NHL campaigns. Matthew Barnaby weighed in as well, complimenting Kovalev as the most skilled player he ever played with or watched, while suggesting that Kovalev might be the only 1,000 point scorer to be considered an underachiever.

There have been and will most certainly be elite players that accomplish more in their careers than Alex Kovalev. Whether that's because those players are more driven, are in better situations or, in the rarest of cases, are more talented, Kovalev won't be considered among the all-time greats. 

That can be the curse of superior talent. Great accomplishments, that only the tiniest percentage ever have a chance to achieve, are not enough when you have seemingly unlimited skills.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Alex Kovalev (Photo: Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
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