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Roy MacGregor

Senators shed the Kovalev burden Add to ...

Ottawa has never seen a shuffle quite to compare.

The change of power that is taking place at ScotiaBank Place, just to the northwest of town, has no comparison in government and soon may have no comparison in sport.

Step 6 in what may eventually be a 10- to 12-step rehabilitation program for the troubled Ottawa Senators was taken Thursday afternoon when the Senators shipped Alexei Kovalev, the one the French call l'Artiste, to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a bag of pucks.

Well, that's a slight exaggeration. He was actually traded for a conditional seventh-round draft choice. No matter. If only two years ago Montreal fans rallied to pressure the Canadiens to keep Kovalev, Ottawa fans would have happily carried him on their shoulders to the airport if it would help send him on his way more quickly.

It has been that bad an experience, the regrettable two-year, $10-million (all currency U.S.) deal given Kovalev in 2009 symbolic of just about everything that could go wrong with a hockey team, where just about everything has.

It was a day in which the Senators also claimed little known Marek Svatos off waivers from the Nashville Predators. The 28-year-old Slovak had once been a prospect with the Colorado Avalanche but this year had bailed from the Continental Hockey League to the St. Louis Blues, only to have Nashville claim him as he passed through waivers. In nine games with the Predators, he had one goal and two assists.

The Senators wrapped up a two-week frenzy in which they sent centre Mike Fisher to the Predators for a first-round pick in 2011 and, depending on how the Predators fare, a possible later pick in 2012; sent centre Chris Kelly to the Boston Bruins for a second-round pick; sent forward Jarkko Ruutu to the Anaheim Ducks for a sixth-rounder, and swapped stumbling goaltender Brian Elliott to Colorado in exchange for goaltender Craig Anderson.

When the team's master plan to gut itself was first revealed in The Globe and Mail on Jan. 23, it was said no official announcement would be made concerning the decision to start from scratch, but "actions would speak for themselves."

Fisher and Kelly were solid players but were deemed expendable for the simple reason that other teams wanted them and were willing to give up the coveted draft picks that a rebuilding team requires. Ruutu had been a disappointment in Ottawa, but the agitator has playoff value. As Ottawa had given up on the playoffs, they were happy to get anything for him.

In the case of Elliott, it was a situation where they felt they had to get the shell-shocked goaltender out of town for his own good. He had become almost phobic about being in a net, a condition that does not appear to be lifting quickly as he was bombed 5-1 in his first outing for the Avalanche.

Anderson, on the other hand, has played twice for the Senators, shutting out the Toronto Maple Leafs and holding the Florida Panthers to one goal as he won both matches.

The Anderson deal looks excellent from one angle - a once fine goaltender who had soured this year given a new lease on life - but there is another angle that suggests the best deal for this particular 2010-11 team could conceivably turn out to be the worst.

Part of the master plan was to target finishing in the bottom five, perhaps even as low as dead last, in order to draft as high as possible in the June entry draft, in which there are a handful of excellent prospects available.

If Anderson continues to excel, it is possible the Senators could rise as high as sixth last or higher, meaning they would not be in the lottery that will decide the order of best picks. If Anderson really shines, he would become attractive to any number of teams and, as an unrestricted free agent this summer, could elect to see what his market value is league wide. Ottawa, then, could conceivably lose the very player who denied the Senators that lottery pick.

Such are the permutations and calculations and speculations of a team that has decided to change horses mid-stream when that stream is frozen solid for hockey.

The immediate news, however, is all good, as Ottawa fans have grown outraged with Kovalev in recent weeks. The play of this gifted Russian has always been spotty - with Montreal, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers - but that he had stopped caring or trying in Ottawa was apparent to every fan, let alone coach Cory Clouston and general manager Bryan Murray. When the Senators decided to pull the plug and sell off whatever assets they could by the trade deadline, Kovalev suddenly came to life, confirming what fans had suspected.

Kovalev turned 38 the day he got his wish. He left a team in which he had scored only 14 goals this season, six of them over the past 10 games.

The deal could, however, be a good one for Pittsburgh, struggling without star forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. When Kovalev came to the Montreal Canadiens in 2004, he glided through the remainder of the regular season but soared in the playoffs, picking up 10 points in 11 games. His lifetime statistics are impressive: more than 1,000 games, more than 1,000 points, one Stanley Cup, all-star game MVP only two years ago.

But now he carries a statistic no star would ever want - traded for a conditional seventh-round pick.

As one wit put it, the "condition" is that if at the end of the season they hold a mirror up to his nose and it fogs up, the Senators will get the usually useless draft pick.

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