Canadiens Stabilize Right Side on Defense with Kovacevic

Two rookies scored their first-career NHL goals when the Montreal Canadiens beat the Seattle Kraken 4-2 on Dec. 6. Kraken forward Shane Wright received the most fanfare and perhaps justifiably so, after the projected first-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft slipped to No. 4, with the Habs choosing Juraj Slafkovsky instead. However, rookie Habs defenseman Johnathan Kovacevic scored the other goal and he’s had more of a positive impact than either one so far.

Johnny Kovacevic, Manitoba Moose
Current-Montreal Canadiens defenseman Johanthan Kovacevic – (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

To be fair, Kovacevic has been around the block somewhat as a 25-year old, who was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 2017. He really only barely meets the criteria to be eligible for the Calder Memorial Trophy, just for added context. Of course, he won’t win it, even if only because the other Habs rookie defensemen likely won’t either: Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj.

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Each of the above three Habs defensemen have higher profiles than Kovacevic, who was picked up off waivers at the start of the season, when the Jets tried to clear him through waivers. In fact, with a relatively modest four points in 23 games, he’s tied for last among Habs defensemen in scoring, with exception to Joel Edmundson (three points), who missed the start of the season with an injury.

Kovacevic vs. Wideman

Coincidentally, Kovacevic is tied with Chris Wideman in scoring. Granted, Wideman has only been played in 14 games as a regular healthy scratch, but the point is Kovacevic has been relied on to a greater degree than the fellow-right-handed defenseman, who was re-signed to arguably have a stabilizing effect on that right side. It’s less so a reflection on Wideman’s play than Kovacevic’s though. The latter’s just been quietly impressive, is all.

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At this point, you know what you’re getting in Wideman, or at least you should. In spite of the All-Star Game buzz Wideman generated (unjustifiably) in the first half of last season, he’s a depth, journeyman “offenseman” for all intents and purposes. You can be forgiven if that’s what you assumed the Canadiens were getting in Kovacevic, who had scored 44 points in 91 American Hockey League games over the last two seasons, but had been limited to four career NHL games, all with the Jets and all in 2021-22.

Chris Wideman Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Chris Wideman – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes maybe knew something few others did. Kovacevic is a well-rounded defenseman, who may not stand out with his play, but that’s kind of what you’re realistically hoping for with a bottom-four defenseman you pick up off waivers, someone you don’t really notice on the ice, which, as they say, is a clear sign they’re doing their job.

Kovacevic has seemingly found a permanent NHL one, primarily beside Harris, the Canadiens’ second-most used pairing this season. Even if Harris is considered the stalwart of the two, arguably with the higher ceiling, for the time being Kovacevic has actually dressed in one more game as the Canadiens rotate their young defensemen in and out of the lineup. For the record, he’s also getting more ice time than Xhekaj, who might grab all the headlines for his in-your-face gameplay and defense-leading four goals.

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Ultimately, in spite of how Kovacevic was initially billed as a defenseman with “untapped offensive potential,” the degree to which he finds success won’t be measured in the points he puts up. With only two seconds of ice time on the power play per game, lowest on the defensive corps, it had better not, even if his first career goal is a good sign.

Kovacevic a Key Part of Canadiens’ Rebuild

Kovacevic had generally been seen as little more than a stop-gap measure, a means to an end to give Justin Barron time to develop in the AHL. While Barron probably still ranks higher on the depth chart in terms of his long-term projection,  Kovacevic has placed himself firmly in the Habs’ long-term plans, while veteran right-handed shots Wideman and David Savard realistically have the lengths of their current contracts left with the team.

In fact, during a rebuilding season, during which Hughes has recently implied the goal is to stick to plan as sellers at the trade deadline, Kovacevic has given the Habs more options than initially anticipated. The right side remains a weak point compared to the left, based on organizational depth. However, head coach Martin St. Louis has regularly played his lefties on the opposite side, after left-hand shots Edmundson and Mike Matheson returned from injury.

Joel Edmundson
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Joel Edmundson – (Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

So, it’s no longer just Edmundson who could conceivably be dealt, assuming Hughes goes that route, putting his non-unrestricted free agent veterans on the block. Compared to Matheson, Edmundson has less offensive skill, after all. However, Savard and Wideman shouldn’t necessarily be safe, if a trade is there to be made. Kovacevic is the primary reason for that.

Canadiens Make the Right Pick off Waivers

In other words, even if he’s not the No. 1 right-handed defenseman the Canadiens need to succeed Jeff Petry (who went the other way in the Matheson deal), Kovacevic is the answer to the question many had heading into the season: Who’s going to fill out that extra spot on the right side? In fact, seeing as he’s playing as much as he is, Kovacevic isn’t as much filling an extra spot as a regular one.

That’s more that can be said of Wright, at least for the time being. For all intents and purposes, Wright is destined for great things, and the debate between him and Slafkovsky will rage on for years, even if it probably shouldn’t, because the Canadiens chose who they chose.

Shane Wright Seattle Kraken
Seattle Kraken forward Shane Wright – (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

There’s no going back now, but it really only came down to those two at the Draft, because there wasn’t a right-handed defenseman projected to go in that top tier. With the Canadiens having acquired Kirby Dach to play center, that one position effectively became their biggest hole (with goalie Carey Price not having yet stepped away from the game). In any case, there shouldn’t be any doubt at this point that the Canadiens made the right pick, choosing who they chose to pick off waivers instead, even if there were higher-profile names set to become available.

Kovacevic obviously isn’t the No. 1 defenseman they need, but he is a defenseman they need, period. He’s done nothing but prove that since he arrived. His first goal unofficially cemented that arrival, and all signs point to him staying put.