Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin has been busy already this offseason, acquiring a pair of Stanley Cup champions in goaltender Jake Allen and defenseman Joel Edmundson to shore up his team’s backend.
Bergevin’s attention now turns to improving his forward group, more specifically trying to add a big scoring winger who can play in the top 6. Habs fans and most of the hockey world assumed that Ilya Kovalchuk would be brought back to fill that role after he was traded to the Washington Capitals at the deadline, but re-signing the Russian winger should no longer be a priority for Montreal’s GM.
A Struggle in Washington
Considering Kovalchuk’s impressive showing during his brief stint with the Canadiens in 2020-21 to the tune of six goals and 13 points in 22 games, plus the fact that the 37-year-old embraced playing in Montreal as much as the fans welcomed him with open arms, it seemed like a sure thing that he would be back according to Eric Engels of Sportsnet.
“Based on my information, it’s all but assured Kovalchuk will be back in Montreal come 2020-21.”
But, Kovalchuk was never able to get going in Washington despite being reunited with his good friend Alex Ovechkin. He scored four points in seven games to close out the regular season and managed just one point in eight postseason games as the Capitals were upset by the New York Islanders in the opening round of the playoffs.
Perhaps playing a lesser role with Washington contributed to Kovalchuk’s lack of production or maybe his career revival was short-lived. Regardless, Bergevin should explore other avenues to address his new most pressing need.
Better Options in Free Agency and Via Trade
Even though the Canadiens are suddenly closer to the cap following the additions of Allen and Edmundson, they still have some wiggle room and significant assets to find some scoring up front either on the trade market or in free agency.
With so many teams feeling a cap crunch and players like Josh Anderson and Jesse Puljujärvi who might benefit from a fresh start, the Habs have multiple scenarios to look at before circling back to Kovalchuk. Scenarios that could potentially be more rewarding for the Canadiens now and in the future as well.
In a recent article for The Athletic, Arpon Basu and Marc Antoine Godin outlined who the Canadiens might target via trade, mentioning the likes of Anderson, Alex Killorn, who grew up in the West Island just outside of Montreal, pending restricted free agent Anthony Mantha and even Vladimir Tarasenko, who is recovering from a second shoulder surgery. It’s also been rumored that Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets can be had for the right price.
“The Canadiens have an unanticipated chance to add players who wouldn’t otherwise be available at a bargain price. With a full war chest of picks and prospects – assets that gain value in a flat-cap world – Bergevin is well-positioned to pounce on financially strapped teams this offseason, even if he has to be careful while doing so,” (from ‘Time to pounce: How the Canadiens can capitalize on an unprecedented offseason, The AthleticNHL – 08/25/20).
In free agency, even if it’s unlikely Bergevin will be able to land Taylor Hall, he might be interested in a player like Evgenii Dadonov who scored 28 goals in back-to-back seasons with the Florida Panthers.
In an ideal world, Bergevin will be able to bring in a younger player who can play in Montreal for several seasons, build chemistry with his young centremen Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki and help take their games to the next level.
A Good Mentor for Kotkaniemi and Suzuki
Speaking of Kotkaniemi and Suzuki, if Kovalchuk does ultimately return to the Canadiens for another year as many predicted, he will serve as a great mentor for them as well as fellow Russian Alexander Romanov, Montreal’s top defensive prospect who is expected to make the jump to the NHL in 2020-21. Kovalchuk already thinks very highly of Suzuki.
“Suzy (Suzuki), I love to play with that guy, he’s so creative, you know those guys now with all those different skills you know even at practice you can see what they do with the puck it’s fun to watch,” Kovalchuk said.
Kovalchuk can play a top role 6 with the Habs, add depth and give a boost to their struggling power play, even in a condensed season. He would be a cheaper option with a shorter term, something that can’t be ignored in a flat salary cap world.
Even if he would be a band-aid solution of sorts, Kovalchuk’s success in Montreal as well as his appreciation for the city, the team, and the fans should provide a spark and motivate him to perform.
“When I’ll be a free agent, it’s one of the destinations that will be on my mind, because the fans here, the players, the younger players, the direction this team is going, I really like that a lot,” Kovalchuk said.
The Canadiens appeared to turn a corner during the postseason and are in a prime position to finally get out of retool mode and take a big step towards becoming a contender again, which means that Bergevin needs to be aggressive, just as he has been with his first two moves of the offseason. But, finding a big scoring winger will be his toughest task of all so it’s a luxury knowing that he has a fallback guy like Kovalchuk, especially considering how amicably the two parted ways the first time around.