SUNRISE, Fla. | Alex Kovalev has been around a while. Before joining the Florida Panthers he played for four other NHL teams in 18 seasons.
“I wasn’t even born and he was in the NHL,” 19-year-old Panthers rookie Jonathan Huberdeau said. “It’s kind of funny to say.”
At 39 years old, Kovalev has plenty of life and hockey experience to share with his teammates, especially the younger ones.
“I think he can bring the knowledge that he has, the overall game and what we’re preaching and what our expectations are as a staff and a team and go out there and execute with the rest of the boys,” coach Kevin Dineen said.
Huberdeau, the No. 3 overall pick of the Panthers in the 2011 draft, got a chance to play alongside Kovalev in his NHL debut. He scored on his first shift.
“He’s just a great player to play with,” Huberdeau said. “The first game I have the chance to play with him and it worked out pretty well. He try to teach me a lot, teach me a lot of stuff, and just help me in my starting career. I think that’s what he’s trying to do, and as a veteran you have to listen to him because he knows a lot about it.”
Kovalev’s advice to Huberdeau was to just play the same way he did in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he was a 100-point player for the Saint John Sea Dogs and a teammate of Washington Capitals prospect Stan Galiev.
“Even if it’s quicker execution and the size, too, is bigger, [he told me] just to play my game like I was playing before,” Huberdeau said.
Kovalev might be best to heed his own advice as he returns to the Panthers lineup Tuesday night against the Caps following a two-game absence. In 1,311 NHL games, the right wing has 430 goals and 598 assists. Those are close to Hall of Fame numbers, even if his career doesn’t jump out as such.
Sitting Kovalev wasn’t easy for Dineen, but the coach said the veteran handled it well.
“He’s an absolute pro. Every time you sit a guy, it’s no fun for anybody, telling him, for the player,” Dineen said. “But, hey, they’re big boys, they’re professionals and understand what the situation is and, like anybody, wait for your opportunity. More importantly, to prepare for when your opportunity does come to get back in the lineup.”