It wasn’t that long ago that Pittsburgh Penguins fans were treated to a nightly dose of Alexei Kovalev, the superstar. Now, many are expecting to witness Alex Kovalev, the has-been.

A lot has changed since Kovalev’s three-year stint in Pittsburgh. For starters, he now goes by “Alex,” not “Alexei,” and his once-popular number 27 has been inverted to 72. But more importantly, he’s gone from ultra-productive to under-productive.

For as many compliments as Kovalev earned while skating with Martin Straka and Robert Lang on the NHL’s top line in the early 2000s, he likely has twice as many criticisms as he returns to Pittsburgh in 2011.

But, as I sit here and type this, I find it difficult to be anything other than excited.

For starters, Penguins general manager Ray Shero gave up just a conditional seventh round draft pick, which could improve to a sixth rounder if the Penguins advance to the second round of the playoffs and if Kovalev plays in half of the team’s game.

Hardly a steep price for a once-elite winger who, as the Tribune-Review’s Joe Starkey wrote, “...has half as many goals (six) in his past 10 games as any Penguins player on the ice against San Jose — besides newcomer James Neal — had for the entire season.”

Sure, he’s totaled nearly half of his goals for the season in what many will consider to be nothing more than a trade showcase over the last few weeks — but, to me, it’s evidence that the skill that once allowed him to score 44 goals in a season remains with him.

As I drove home from work today, I couldn’t help but snicker at 93.7 The Fan’s Andrew Fillipponi as he opined about how Kovalev won’t be the recognizable AK27, but rather a cheap grenade.

When he finished discussing how Kovalev single-handedly destroyed the Montreal Canadiens (really?) and Ottawa Senators, he opened the lines for callers and openly questioned whether he’d receive any positive-thinking calls.

Not surprisingly, he was lambasted for his utterly negative outlook and complete lack of knowledge of the game.

While everyone is entitled to his opinion, to suggest Kovalev, the former overly-popular Penguin, would not only hurt the team but destroy it — well, it just shows pure ignorance.

Kovalev, who served as the captain of the Canadiens in 2008, isn’t far removed from star status.

Just three years ago he tallied 84 points in Montreal, and he followed it up with a 65-point season one year later. His two years in Ottawa have been less successful, but his 49 points last season would have been enough for a fourth place tie in Pittsburgh.

I don’t expect miracles. Kovalev is a 38-year-old former elite forward on the downside of his career. But for those with short memories, the Penguins found themselves in a similar situation two years ago when they acquired Bill Guerin for a conditional third round draft pick.

At that time, Guerin was having a relatively bad season and was considered to be slightly less than the perfect teammate. All he did was secure a role on Sidney Crosby’s wing en route to the Penguins first Stanley Cup since 1992.

With Evgeni Malkin done for the season and with uncertainty surrounding Crosby’s return from a concussion, a Stanley Cup is a longshot, and Kovalev is far from the player who will put the team over the hump.

But just as Guerin proved many fans — myself included — wrong, I fully expect Kovalev to do the same.

In short, Shero took a risk by adding Kovalev, but it was a very low one, and one that comes with the potential for a high reward.

In other words, it was a risk worth taking.

Welcome back “Alex.”