Something Else Happened
We will have a full edition of news notes up tomorrow, but right now we need to deal with some breaking news from the KHL today. SKA St. Petersburg Captain Ilya Kovalchuk is out — out of the SKA team for Game 2 of their playoff series against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and for reasons other than injury. Out of SKA for good? Out of the KHL? We do not know, but both of those are live possibilities right now. Below the jump, we will investigate the situation a bit further.
So, what DO we know about what has happened with Ilya Kovalchuk in the last couple of days? Once we sort through the rumour, innuendo, speculation, and wild surmise, the answer is: not much. However, it seems to me that four facts are beyond dispute at this point:
- SKA lost Game 1 against Lokomotiv 3-2 in overtime, with Kovalchuk going -2 with no points and only shot on goal.
- On Lokomotiv’s winning goal (see video above), Kovalchuk was executing a slow glide through the neutral zone, miles from being able to help as Jiří Novotný batted the puck past Mikko Koskinen. The optics, as the pundits say, were bad.
- Ilya Kovalchuk will be a healthy scratch in Game 2 of the series on Tuesday.
- Furthermore, Kovalchuk has been sent back to St. Petersburg, and is not even training with SKA.
It would be very difficult for a reasonable person to get, causally, from Fact #1 to Fact #4, even with the inclusion of Facts #2 and #3, without inserting Something Else into the equation. We are, after all, not talking about some raw rookie in need of a kick in the hockey pants. This is Ilya Kovalchuk, Captain of the team, one of the very finest Russian players of the last decade or so, and the man whom the KHL wrested away from the embrace of the NHL and brought home. Despite age and a series of nagging injuries, he managed nearly a point per game this season, going 16-33-49 in 50 games. This is not a player whom one puts in the press box, let alone sends off to train by himself, for the venial sin of being AWOL on a play in the defensive zone.
Besides which, Kovalchuk’s failure to back-check on that overtime goal may not have been as egregious as it seemed at first viewing. He was not alone in the neutral zone; as you can see from the screen shot above, Patrik Hersley was in the vicinity. Kovalchuk knew it, too, having peeked over just a second earlier. This is interesting, because Lokomotiv’s second goal yesterday had come when Kovalchuk got pulled too deep into his own zone, giving up the high slot to Vladislav Gavrikov, who arrived from almost exactly where Hersley is in that picture. It may very well be that the SKA Captain decided that he was not going to let that sort of thing happen again.
Furthermore, Ilya Kovalchuk has a wonky back and at least one bad knee, which probably makes him effectively a bit older than the 32 years on his birth certificate. And this play came just after he had forayed deep into Lokomotiv territory, in overtime of a game in which he had been on the ice more than any other SKA skater — a little over 24 minutes by that point. So as he looked back at his team’s end, at five of his team-mates (including Koskinen) dealing with only three Lokomotiv players, it may not have been unreasonable for him to decide to take the shorter road and deal with Hersley. A man’s gotta know his limitations, as Harry Callahan famously said.
We should dispense, therefore, with any notion that Kovalchuk’s removal from the team for Game 2 is, or should be, related to his play. That brings us back to the Something Else, and to what comes next. And again, despite all the speculation in the media et cetera — much of it admittedly quite plausible — we really do not have any idea what happened. The team has released only the details of his punishment, and while SKA seem to be suggesting that his absence will be for just the one game, we will not know for sure until Kovalchuk appears, or does not, in the lineup for Game 3. We have yet to hear from the man himself.
For SKA fans, the happiest possibility has Kovalchuk violating some team rule — breaking curfew or something of the like — and receiving a slap on the wrist for it, albeit a somewhat severe one. The Captain returns for Game 3, full of contrition and of a desire to make amends, and all is forgiven. The unhappy scenario is that Kovalchuk has played his last game for SKA, and perhaps even in the KHL, and will leave SKA to defend the Gagarin Cup while suffering not only the loss of their Captain and second-leading scorer, but also the fallout from the manner of his departure. Either of those scenarios is possible, as are a number of others lying somewhere in the middle.
Ilya Kovalchuk cut a somewhat lonesome figure as he returned to St. Petersburg in the wee hours of Monday night or Tuesday morning, heading into his team-imposed exile. Where and when we will see him on the ice again remain unknowns, as do — and I cannot stress this enough — the details of the Something Else behind this situation. We will keep you posted though, as new developments occur. In the meantime, Game 2 of the series goes on Tuesday in Yaroslavl.