Habs Gamble on Kovalchuk… At What Price?

There are busy GMs and then there is Marc Bergevin. One of the most active and efficient amongst his peers when it comes to trades, Bergevin has once again brought the spotlight on himself and his Canadiens with a substantial announcement, this time with a free agent signing. As we know, there are deals that seem to come out of left field. Then, there’s this one which seems to be coming out several kilometers from the stadium!

Yes, less than 24 hours after making two trades, Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager announced that he has signed two-times disgruntled winger and former NHL star player Ilya Kovalchuk. The 6-foot 3-inches, 222 lbs 36 year-old winger had nine points (3G-6A) in 17 games and a differential of minus -10 with the L.A. Kings this season before being informed that he would no longer play for the Kings. In his NHL career, Kovalchuk has 436 goals and 859 points in 897 games but his differential sits at a dismal minus -152…

While the price to acquire him seems right, this signing doesn’t come without risks. Not only Kovalchuk isn’t the player that he used to be, but if he couldn’t play in Los Angeles for what was reported to be a conflict with head coach Todd McLellan for not following game plans, what makes the Canadiens believe that he will under Claude Julien? And this wasn’t the first time that his contract was terminated as he and the New Jersey Devils ended a long and very lucrative contract because Kovalchuk wanted to go back to Russia.

Further, who can forget back in May 2015 when Kovalchuk, then captain of the Russian team, was pressing his teammates to get off the ice before the Canadian National Anthem following a 6-1 loss in the finals against Canada at the World Championship in Prague, when we could see former Habs Andrei Markov and Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin telling them to stay?

The sport’s governing body, IIHF, said the Russian players deliberately left the ice before Canada’s national anthem was played after a signal from captain Ilya Kovalchuk. After studying video evidence, the IIHF said Kovalchuk gave an “unmistakable head gesture” as signal for teammates to skate off the ice early after collecting their silver medals. They did not stay to hear the Canadian anthem and watch the flags of the three medallist countries being raised.

“This was exceptional as no other team has ever left the ice before the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship medal ceremony was completed,” the Zurich-based body said.

The IIHF fined the Russian hockey federation 80,000 Swiss francs ($85,000) after accepting it had apologized to Canadian officials.

Like Radulov?

Bergevin has a history of giving players a chance on a low-risk contract. He did it with Alexander Semin, Mark Streit, Ales Hemsky, Zack Kassian (before he blew it without playing a single game) amongst others. More recently, Habs’ fans will remember when Bergevin convinced reputed bad boy Alexander Radulov to come to Montreal and that one turned out alright. We can only hope that it turns out similarly.

But the question remains as to why Bergevin is making these moves with his team’s position in the standings and with so many key players injured? Does he think that Scandella and Kovalchuk will turn this around enough to make his team reach the playoffs? Or is he simply hurting the Canadiens’ chances at getting a better Draft pick? Like with Scandella, I see three scenarios:

  1. Kovalchuk plays well, the Canadiens are out of the playoffs by trade deadline, they trade him and get something back for signing him.
  2. Kovalchuk plays well, fits in well and by and the Habs offer him a new contract.
  3. He plays poorly and they let him go this summer, he didn’t cost them anything but salary.

Again, it adds to the puzzling stance of the Canadiens’ GM and one can question the timing of it all. Why so late? Is it too little, too late? Either way, it seems like with those trades and signing, the Habs managed to spike their fans and the media’s interest in a season that was rapidly going by the wayside. Either way, it should make for an interesting trade deadline folks. Go Habs Go!

Scandella: Timing Is Everything

The year 2020 had barely pointed itself that four teams created a tremor, a slight earthquake in a league where in-season trades have become the exception, not the rule. Three of the four teams involved in two separate deals are from the Atlantic Division. The Montreal Canadiens’ Twitter account was the busiest, by first announcing that the team had traded one of their depth defensemen, Mike Reilly, to the Ottawa Senators. Soon after, they were back at it announcing that they had made the acquisition of Marco Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres. Then the Sabres announced that they had acquired Michael Frolik from the Calgary Flames. All of that was announced within a few minutes preceding the first Eastern time zone games.

One of the busiest General Managers in the NHL since taking over the Habs in 2012, Marc Bergevin, was once again was the busiest, completing not one, but two trades:

To To
Mike ReillyAndrew Sturtz
2021 5th round pick (OTT)
To To
2020 4th round pick (SJS)Marco Scandella

in 14 games with the AHL’s Belleville Senators, Sturtz, 25, has managed two points (1 G-1A). Standing at 5-foot 8-inches and 184 lbs, he has also registered two points (1 goal, 1 assist) in four games with the Brampton Beast in the ECHL. Sturtz is described as a small, speedy but injury-prone forward and was likely acquired to provide some much needed help for the Laval Rockets, as several players are either called up in Montreal or are injured.

In the second trade, the Canadiens got a Montreal native in Scandella, 29, who has nine points (3 G-6A), 34 blocked shots (4th on the Sabres) and has a differential of plus -9. The 6-foot 3-inches, 212 lbs left-handed defenseman is averaging 16:36 of ice time per game in Buffalo. The former QMJHL Val-d’Or Foreurs carries a $4 million cap hit and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. He will provide Ben Chiarot a bit of relief, he who has been playing tons of minutes lately, and should help stabilize the penalty killing units.

Trades analysis

Making sense of the first trade was rather easy. Reilly has only appeared in 14 of the Habs’ 41 games this season. He has one more year remaining to his contract after this season, so by trading him, the Canadiens were not only freeing up his $1.5 million salary, but they freed up a spot for prospect Alexander Romanov for next year, he who met with Bergevin in Russia a few weeks ago. Further, Bergevin keeps collecting Draft picks, as he’s done for the past couple of years. So far, so good, everything makes sense.

Marco Scandella is coming home, but for how long?

Then comes the Scandella trade, sending totally mixed signals. Had this trade occurred a few weeks ago when the Canadiens were right in the race for a playoffs’ spot, everyone who doesn’t have an axe to grind against Bergevin would acclaim this acquisition. But with the Habs sitting six points back of the Division’s third place and seven points back of the last Wild Card spot, with five teams to leapfrog to get in, many people, myself included, question the timing of it. No one is questioning if Scandella is an improvement over Brett Kulak. He certainly is. But with Brendan Gallagher just joining Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia and Paul Byron on the injury list, they’re questioning the timing, as none of these guys are expected until at least the third week of January. So why so late? Too late?

The only – somewhat – logical explanation I can think of is one of the following three scenarios:

  1. Scandella plays well, the Canadiens are out of the playoffs by trade deadline, they trade him and get that pick back or even get more than what they paid.
  2. Scandella plays well and by the end of the KHL season, Romanov changes his mind and stays in Russia, so the Habs offer him a new contract.
  3. He plays poorly and they let him go this summer, wasting a 4th round pick.

Many fans and members of the media are puzzled by Bergevin’s actions. Has he given up on the season or not? If not, he might have waited too long to help his team and repeated his previous mistakes. And if f he has given up, then why improve his team now and potentially hurt his chances to get Alexis Lafrenière? Either way, Bergevin’s actions yesterday are murky at best. Something tells me that we will find out soon enough why he’s made the moves that he has but for that, fans and media will have to do something they’re not accustomed to: be patient. Go Habs Go!