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!

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