I have no idea what Montreal Canadiens’ general manager Marc Bergevin thought would happen when he signed Ilya Kovalchuk after the Los Angeles Kings released him from his contract in December 2019. But, I’m thinking that – even in his wildest dreams – he didn’t expect the strength of play that Kovalchuk brought to the team. Even Bergevin had to be surprised.
As well, and I can think of about four NHL general managers who have to be sorry they didn’t jump on the loose ball that Kovalchuk became. As it turned out, and this is mixing metaphors I know, it would have been easy to pick up that fumble and run for a touchdown. That’s what Bergevin did.
Specifically, a number of other NHL general managers must be grimacing because they, too, would likely have had a chance to pick up the veteran and probably future NHL Hall of Fame-bound player. Alas, they did not.
Is It Time for the Canadiens to Make Some “Easy Money?”
Now, the question for Bergevin is how to play his both wise and fortunate windfall. Does he keep Kovalchuk around, or does he cash in while he can? Specifically, is it time for the Canadiens to reap some of the spoils for what turned out to be a simple but overwhelmingly wise decision?
The word is that the Boston Bruins were interested in signing Kovalchuk. As reported, the Bruins have been seeking a strong partner for center David Krejci and left-winger Jake DeBrusk. Although Kovalchuk is naturally a left-winger himself, he’s been playing on the right side with the Canadiens.
Furthermore, and even more important, he was willing to sign a league-minimum contract, which would make him an appealing trade pickup for the Bruins’ general manager Don Sweeney. Like many other high-spending teams, the Bruins only have so much salary-cap space. But, they could’ve afforded Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk’s Production with the Canadiens
Since Kovalchuk signed with the Canadiens, he’s scored eight points in eight games (four goals, four assists). He made his Canadiens’ debut on January 6th against the Winnipeg Jets after he’d been a healthy scratch for 18 games in a row with the Kings.
Obviously, at 36-years-old, fans wondered how he would do. However, fortunately for him (but sad for Brendan Gallagher), Kovalchuk had a great opportunity to produce. He played top-line minutes beside Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault because Gallagher was injured. He also skated on the top power-play unit.
It didn’t take long to find out that Kovalchuk still had something left in his tank. He was given almost 20 minutes (19:25) of ice time and had an assist in his debut. In his second game against the Detroit Red Wings, he doubled his production by scoring two assists.
Then, after being held scoreless in a game against the Edmonton Oilers, Kovalchuk scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the Ottawa Senators. It was his fourth goal of the season and came unassisted just prior to the end of the overtime session.
In his last three Canadiens’ games, he hasn’t missed the score sheet. He scored an assist in a 4-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. In his next game, he scored a pair of goals in a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Finally, on January 18th, he had an overtime assist in a win over the Vegas Golden Knights.
Since showing up in Montreal, Kovalchuk has been part of almost half (44 percent) of Montreal’s 16 goals. Considering he hadn’t played in 18 games, that production was a huge surprise. He’s now scored 4 goals and 4 assists since skating in a Canadiens’ uniform.
Will Kovalchuk Be Traded?
So, here’s where Kovalchuk stands. In a small sample size, his production has been huge. Now, given where the Canadiens stand in the playoff race, there’s a good chance he’ll become a valuable trade chip for the Canadiens should the team become sellers at the February 24th deadline.
Kovalchuk, whose family – as I noted in an earlier post – is quite cosmopolitan, might, in fact, enjoy living in a city like Montreal. However, beyond simply suiting up for another NHL team when he was released by the Kings, the word also is that Kovalchuk wanted to join a playoff contender. And, right now the Canadiens are on the outside looking in – 10 points out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
I have to think that unless Bergevin thinks his club can make a realistic playoff push he could trade Kovalchuk and almost magically pick up a draft pick and/or a prospect from his wise, low-risk, high-reward signing of this still-productive NHL veteran.
Probably Traded, but Not to the Bruins
As Pierre LeBrun noted in a recent column in The Athletic, it isn’t likely the Canadiens would trade Kovalchuk to the Boston Bruins. The Bruins and the Canadiens are huge rivals and there hasn’t been a trade between the two in almost 20 years (the last trade was in February 2001). (from “LeBrun: Where all 31 teams stand one month before the trade deadline,” by Pierre LeBrun, The Athletic, 01/24/20)
However, last week Sportsnet’s Eric Francis noted that the Calgary Flames need “a right-handed, impact forward.” That sounds like Kovalchuk, and his top-six minutes with the Canadiens has worked to re-establish his reputation as an impact player.
I believe there’s a great chance – especially if the Canadiens face playoff elimination that they will trade Kovalchuk before February 24th. In fact, they might trade him at the deadline once Gallagher comes back from injury.
The stars have aligned and it seems as if Kovalchuk might be headed to a contender. It’s just too good a deal to pass up.
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