In a season where Montreal Canadiens’ fans don’t have much to celebrate about, the signing of former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk by team General Manager Marc Bergevin feels like a breath of fresh air. Brought in to help provide a warm body during a plague of injuries hitting the Habs, the Russian right winger has delivered more than anyone could have expected so far.
We know the story. Kovalchuk wanted to come back to the NHL and signed a 3-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings paying him an average of $6.25 million. In his first season back to the NHL, the 6-foot 3-inches 222 lbs winger managed 16 goals and 34 points in 64 games, playing an average of 16:14 minutes per game, with a team worst minus -26 differential amongst Kings’ forwards. This season did not start well between Kovalchuk and the Kings either as he only had three goals in 17 games and was already minus -10, going as far as being a healthy scratch. Los Angeles decided to keep him away from the team until they made the decision to buy him out. He played his last game with the Kings on November 9th and his contract was finally bought out on December 17th.
Montreal to the rescue
On January 3rd, Marc Bergevin and the Canadiens announced that they had signed the 36 year-old Kovalchuk for the rest of the season on a two-way contract paying him $700,000 at the NHL level and $70,000 in the AHL.
He know it’s his last chance. I’ve never heard anything bad about Kovy, he’s a hard worker, he’s a good person. We have nothing to lose, we’ll see, where he’s at, where his game is at. It’s going to be up to him. ~ Marc Bergevin
And it would be an understatement to say that so far, he has seized his chance. In eight games with the Canadiens, Kovalchuk as been a model of hard work at both ends of the ice, registering four goals and eight points, with a differential of plus -3. Head coach Claude Julien is not afraid to provide him with ice time, using him an average of 19:36 minutes per game, which is more than his go-to guy Phillip Danault.
Signing with Montreal was the result of a perfect storm. Let’s face reality here. Kovalchuk signed with the Canadiens because teams weren’t lining up to offer him a contract. The injuries kept piling up for the Canadiens, having lost Brendan Gallagher on top of the other ones already on the IR. The Laval Rocket was going through its own rash of injuries so the Habs needed some warm bodies. It was an easy sell to Kovalchuk, knowing that he would be given the opportunity to play on the top two lines in Montreal, at least for the time being. To his credit, he seized his opportunity and made the most of it… so far.
“Unbelievable hockey city. I never played in an environment like this. I appreciate it and we’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep pushing.” ~ Ilya Kovalchuk after the win against Vegas
He seems to love Montreal. Fans love him. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Alexander Radulov is a reminder to take that with a grain of salt. Players will follow the money for the most part and one can wonder who much the Canadiens will want to spend on a guy who will be turning 37 in April.
Trade deadline fast approaching
The sound decision would be for Bergevin to trade Kovalchuk regardless. It’s a deep draft and if the team can get a second round pick (or more, who knows?) for him, they must explore that option. That pick could be very important if the team wants to move up in the draft or for acquiring a young NHL-ready prospect via trade. It would be turning something the Canadiens didn’t have just a few weeks ago and got for free, into a key asset. Smart management, again.
Perhaps he could have a verbal agreement like he had with Tomas Plekanec? If both parties are interested in each other, Kovy gets a chance at the playoffs to end the season and knows that Montreal is in the picture comes June and, just as importantly, he now knows what it’s like to play in Montreal for the Canadiens… and he loves it. With the team on their bye week and management meeting to decide the direction they will be taking by trade deadline, it will be interesting to see what they decide, for sure.
The question on everyone’s mind in Montreal is… How much do you pay him? Pooling some of my Twitter followers in both languages, I’ve had people saying that they would offer him anywhere from $1.5 million up to $6 million. To be truthful, considering that he was making $6.25 million with Los Angeles, I would be shocked if he signed for anything less than $5 – 5.5 million. Is that too rich for the Canadiens’ blood? I am thinking so but as they say… time will tell. Go Habs Go!