Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Penguins move Kovalev to center

AP Sports Writer

        PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins showed off a brand new center Monday who figures to be one of their two top scorers, and they didn't need to make a trade or a roster move to land him.

        Alexei Kovalev, who broke into the NHL as a center but played on a wing since the Penguins acquired him nearly four years ago, spent practice centering a newly formed second line with Vladimir Vujtek and Ville Nieminen.

        The surprise switch apparently wasn't an experiment. Coach Rick Kehoe said he plans to keep the line together for Thursday's opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

        “He's really a center,” Kehoe said. “He knows how to play center. If you would want him to play defense, he'll play defense, he's that type of guy.”

        Kovalev was expected to play right wing on a second line with center Randy Robitaille and left wing Alexandre Daigle. Instead, Kehoe kept Robitaille with Daigle and Wayne Primeau after they played well together in an intrasquad game played Saturday night before nearly 9,000 fans at Mellon Arena.

        Kovalev was a center on the New York Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup championship team, but has enjoyed his best offensive seasons as a right wing. He and Penguins teammate Martin Straka tied for fourth in the league with 95 points in the 2000-01 season, and he was 11th last year in scoring despite missing 15 games, mostly because of an injured knee.

        With Mario Lemieux centering the top line with Jan Hrdina at left wing and Aleksey Morozov at right wing, the Penguins go into the season with a scoring threat — and more of a physical presence than usual — on each line.

        “We're trying to get a couple of different looks,” Kehoe said.

        “It's going to be different,” Kovalev said. “We're going to talk, see how we're going to play it. Sometimes there was some miscommunication, three guys skating in the same spot, so we're going to sit down and talk about who's going to do what.”

        Still, Kovalev doesn't expect the line to need much more than a couple of days of practice to start feeling comfortable.

        “It's just some little adjustments, it's nothing really bad or tough,” he said. “One or two practices I'll be back. ... As a center, there's always more space in the middle instead of being on the boards. Some teams put a lot of pressure on the half boards, so there's more space in the middle and I can move the puck around. I'm pretty comfortable anywhere.”

        The move was another sign the Penguins weren't happy with last season's 28-41-8-5 finish, the team's worst record since Lemieux's rookie season in 1984-85.

        Another indicator was the demotion of nearly all the younger players who spent all or most of last season in the NHL, including Kris Beech, Toby Petersen and Milan Kraft. Prospects such as Brooks Orpik and Konstantin Koltsov also didn't make the team.

        Twenty-three players began training camp with one-way contracts — meaning they are paid an NHL wage even if they spend the season in the minors — and all are still with the Penguins.

        “The younger guys, it might be better for them to go to Wilkes-Barre and play 20 or 25 minutes a night instead of 5 or 8 minutes here,” Kehoe said.


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