Johnathan Kovacevic: Get to Know the Canadiens’ Defenceman

Considering the state of the Montreal Canadiens’ group of defencemen and Joel Edmundson’s offseason injury only making matters worse, it was widely anticipated that general manager Kent Hughes would seek to improve his team’s defensive depth during training camp. He accomplished exactly that by utilizing his high priority on the NHL waiver wire to claim Johnathan Kovacevic over the weekend from the Winnipeg Jets.

At 6’4”, the 25-year-old brings an element of size, versatility, and experience as a pro. He also gives the right side of Montreal’s defence corps a much-needed boost. Here are some interesting things to know about a late addition to the Habs’ opening night roster.

Still Improving

Selected in the third round of the 2017 NHL Draft by the Jets, Kovacevic was one of the best offensive defencemen in the American Hockey League (AHL) last year, putting up 11 goals and 19 assists for 30 points in 62 games with the Manitoba Moose. He turned his impressive 2021-22 campaign into a new three-year contract which he signed this summer.

Johnathan Kovacevic Manitoba Moose
Johnathan Kovacevic, Manitoba Moose (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

He provided stability as part of the first pairing with the Moose for several seasons and often played alongside some of the Jets’ top prospects, including Dylan Samberg and Ville Heinola, helping the Manitoba defensive group become one of the most revered in the AHL. Last season, he was rewarded with his first taste of the NHL, appearing in four games with Winnipeg. While his arrival with the Canadiens won’t solve all their problems, it allows for a young player like Justin Barron to be sent down to the Laval Rocket to rebuild his confidence and continue developing in an environment more suited for him at this time, a luxury that is a crucial ingredient to a successful rebuild in Montreal.

Kovacevic also still has room for growth despite being a seasoned veteran of the AHL. It’s clear that management sees some untapped potential in him, and he’ll get an opportunity with the Habs to show that he can be an everyday defenceman in the NHL. Not to mention that one of his closest mentors is none other than former Canadiens captain Mike Keane, who will help him adapt to hockey’s most intense market.

I heard some unbelievable things from him and told him I’d try and follow in his footsteps,” Kovacevic said about Keane. “It’s one of the most storied franchises in sports really, it’s crazy actually. I know how much history is here.”

His Challenging Journey to the NHL

It’s safe to say that Kovacevic took the long road to the professional ranks. The son of a Montenegrin father, Novica, and a Bosnian mother, Angie, the native of Grimsby, Ontario faced a lot of rejection early on in his career.

Related: Kovacevic Gives Canadiens Options on Defense

He was passed over by multiple Triple-A squads in Southern Ontario, cut from the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) twice, and went through two NHL Drafts without hearing his name called. He refused to give up on his dream and decided to play Tier II Junior A hockey in the Central Canada Hockey League with the Ottawa Junior Senators and the Hawkesbury Hawks. It wasn’t long before he was recruited by coaches from Merrimack College, an NCAA Division 1 school. After just one year with the Warriors, he was drafted by the Jets.

Johnny Kovacevic, Manitoba Moose
Johnny Kovacevic, Manitoba Moose (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

He went on to play two more years and 101 total games at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts where he earned a degree in civil engineering and where he was undoubtedly spotted on several occasions by Boston area residents Hughes and Jeff Gorton.

It’s no secret that Kovacevic won’t suddenly make the Canadiens contenders or even significantly better, but that doesn’t mean that his acquisition isn’t meaningful. He represents a bridge toward the future within an organization searching for a new identity in the early stages of building a foundation for sustained success.

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