The Montreal Canadiens entered 2020 on a serious downward slide. Between the Christmas break and Jan. 10, the Habs have an 0-7-1 record, their only point in this latest losing streak came in an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at home. This, coupled with an 0-6-2 run in November, has the Canadiens sitting (as of Jan. 10) nine points out of a playoff position and only five points out of a top three lottery pick.
Injuries have been a problem with Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron and Joel Armia all on injured reserve (IR) for a lengthy period. While these players have been out, others have spent significant time on IR as well such as Victor Mete and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
For a team with no bonafied offensive stars, that many important players missing in action will have a toll on the standings. The fact that the Canadiens’ depth lacked high-quality talent ready to make an NHL jump falls on the shoulders of general manager Marc Bergevin for not developing enough NHLers from the minors for far too long.
With so many injuries, and few forward options on the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, Laval Rocket, Bergevin decided to make a move. He has claimed he isn’t looking for any short-term solutions for the Montreal Canadiens to make the playoffs stating:
“I will not mortgage the future of this team just hoping to make the playoffs,”from ‘Canadiens’ pantry is full, but fans grow hungry for playoff run,’ Montreal Gazette, 01/02/2020.
To avoid using picks or prospects to bring in scoring help, Bergevin went turned to the unrestricted free agent (UFA) well. What he pulled up was the 2001 first-overall pick Ilya Kovalchuk. The 36-year-old winger signed a one-year, two-way $700,000 deal with the Canadiens.
As in all Original Six cities, when the home team is in a standings free fall, there will be numerous negative stories that cause public relations problems for management. With the Habs in the midst of their second eight-game losing streak in two months as fans watch the team plummet in the standings, it should come as no surprise Bergevin was desperate to stop the bleeding.
He found a marquee name that could help keep fans interested in going to games as well as help the roster. Bringing in the star Russian helps sell tickets. The 24 to 45-year-old demographic who are known to spend on entertainment would remember Kovalchuk’s time as an elite player and would want to see him on the ice.
Hockey is supposed to be fun. It is supposed to entertain. What is wrong with bringing in a no-risk player who can draw a crowd, even if it is out of curiosity and nostalgia? With the team in a free fall, there can be no negative impact on the outcome of the season even if he couldn’t play.
Clearly, the entertainment value was the main draw for signing Kovalchuk. Having him has helped change the public relations spin from focusing on the losses to watching a former star try to resurrect his career. It’s a public relations coup, even if it will only last for a few weeks.
Without question, Kovalchuk is a household name in hockey. He has scored 437 goals in 901 games, many of those goals are still played on highlight reels. However, at the age of 36, his name is a bigger draw than his current offensive skills. In his last 81 NHL games before joining Montreal, he scored 19 goals and 43 points while being a minus-31.
He was only available because his use to the Los Angeles Kings had come to an end. He started as a solution for their middle-six, then quickly fell out of favor. Soon, he was on a fourth line, if he wasn’t a healthy scratch. One month after he played his final game as a King, LA decided it was time he was bought out.
In his first four games with the Canadiens, Kovalchuk has shown he is still capable of playing in the NHL. He has one goal, an overtime winner versus the Ottawa Senators, as well as three assists and is a plus-1 while playing over 19 minutes per game. He has also displayed a more aggressive style, averaging almost three hits per game. The bar wasn’t set very high for his time in Montreal to be successful. In his first four games he has leapt over that bar and provided far more than expected.
Jason Paul, a fellow writer at The Hockey Writers and creator of the VERSUS analytic tool, provided some context when he tweeted:
However, fans that expect his useage to remain this high the rest of the season will be disappointed. As the walking wounded return from IR, they will return to their former roles and eat up many of those minutes.
A benefit to Kovalchuk’s arrival may also be to help rehab the team’s image in Russia. There has been a long-standing rumour, a completely baseless one, that head coach Claude Julien “hates Russians,” (from ‘Habs hysteria: Up-and-down start has Canadiens fans on an emotional roller coaster,’ Globe and Mail, 12/01/2017).
Perhaps that reputation exists because Bergevin failed to re-sign aging defenceman Andrei Markov as a UFA when he was 40, or because Alex Radulov chose to leave Montreal and sign as a UFA with the Dallas Stars.
Kovalchuk’s enthusiasm at joining the Canadiens helps disprove that unfounded rumour. Without that unfounded narrative being used by some in Main Stream Media in Montreal it would minimize the chances of alienating Russian players unnecessarily. Especially at a time Bergevin is trying to attract 2018 second-round pick Alexander Romanov to sign his entry-level contract (ELC) this summer.
Signing Romanov, the 2019 World Junior Championship’s Top Defenceman and their top defensive prospect, is vital for the team to modernize their blue line.
The other benefit to bringing in Kovalchuk is what he could bring in at the trade deadline.
If Kovalchuk plays well down the stretch, helps on the Canadiens’ power play and minimizes his negative defensive impact at five on five, then he becomes a trade chip for a contending team.
Teams like the St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Penguins are always in search of depth forwards who can provide some added offence to help their playoff hopes. A player of Kovalchuk’s pedigree could be of interest to teams with Stanley Cup hopes if he can prove he can still contribute.
The return on a trade would be minimal, perhaps a middle to late-round draft pick. If Bergevin were able to gain a pick in a trade, that would be an asset that would have only cost of cap dollars. Bergevin has plenty to spare as the Canadiens hold over $14 million in deadline cap space.
While Bergevin made a calculated move to claim he has done all he can to help his team stay in a playoff race, he has done far more. The addition of Kovalchuk will put an end to the rumours about bias, can add a productive winger to act as a stop gap while key players remain injured and could help add some assets at the deadline. If he does fail, all that would be lost is the prorated salary of $700,000 for this season. Kovalchuk is a no risk, high reward signing for Bergevin.