GP: 379; W: 174, SO: 37, GAA: 2.17, S%: 92.6
Clubs: Avtomobilist, Severstal
Country: Czech Republic
Jakub Kovar is widely seen as one of the key figures in Avtomobilist’s recent resurgence. He joined the Yekaterinburg team in 2013 when it was something of an also-ran in the KHL, having failed to make the previous three playoffs. Since then, the Motormen have missed just one post-season — in 2016/17, when Kovar played for Severstal. Success and longevity in the Urals have seen the 31-year-old Czech international dubbed one of the ‘Three Musketeers’ along with defenseman Nikita Tryamkin and forward Anatoly Golyshev, two other players still at the club since Kovar’s arrival.
Often, the value of a player is most clearly visible when he is unavailable. And the stats from last season reinforced just how important Kovar is to Avtomobilist. Up to the start of November, the Motormen were in top gear. Yekaterinburg celebrated 18 victories in a row at the start of the season and suffered just one loss up to Nov. 4 and the first international break. Then Kovar picked up an injury and missed the next six games; Avto lost five of them, allowing 22 goals in the process. That’s why it’s often said that your goalie is half your team.
Kovar began his career at his hometown club in Pisek and represented the Czechs at U18 and U20 level, earning bronze at the U18 Worlds in 2006. He was drafted the same year, taken by the Flyers in round four, and spent a season in the OHL before returning home to play for Ceske Budojovice. In the Czech Extraliga Kovar was unable to land any big trophies — Ceske Budojovice struggled to compete with the top teams in that competition — but he steered the club away from the relegation zone and collected several individual awards. He also helped his country to back-to-back World Championship medals in 2011 and 2012.
That form brought him to the attention of KHL scouts and he signed for Avtomobilist at the same time as younger brother Jan Kovar went to Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Jan, a powerful center, helped Magnitka to two Gagarin Cups in his five seasons in the league; Jakub was part of a new Avtomobilist as the team steadily became a serious contender in the Eastern Conference. After the 2018/19 campaign, in which Kovar set a KHL record of 38 victories in one regular season, the goalie talked about the transformation of his club, telling Sports.ru:
“We proved [in 2018/19] that we can be counted among the trophy contenders. We showed we’re a serious opponent for anyone. When I came here, this team was an outsider. We’ve already made a leap forward.”
It didn’t take long for Kovar to settle into life in Russia. In a TV interview in December 2018 he talked about how he was pleasantly surprised on arrival in the Ural city, and quickly set about exploring the local restaurant scene. Rapid immersion in the culture of his new home helped the goalie to pick up the Russian language quickly; settled in Yekaterinburg, he quickly produced results on the ice. In his first season, Avtomobilist returned to the playoffs, in his second he led the league with eight shut-outs and made the first of his three All-Star appearances to date. Given his long spell in Yekaterinburg, it’s no surprise that Kovar leads Avtomobilist’s goalies in appearances, wins and shut-outs, as well as posting four of the longest five shut-out series in franchise history.
And the 31-year-old is happy to stay, that one season at Severstal now a distant memory. His contract with Avtomobilist has one more year to run. “I really got used to being here, I like it here,” he said in a local TV interview in December 2018. “I’ve been here for more than five years now and I see lots of good things happening the city and at this club and I’ve just fallen in love with the place.”