One day after Alexander Ovechkin scored his 700th NHL goal, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan moved to add another top-five Russian scorer in NHL history to his roster. The Capitals traded their 2020 third-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Ilya Kovalchuk. The Canadiens will retain half of his salary.
Kovalchuk, who began a difficult season with the Los Angeles Kings, is now moving to a Stanley Cup contender. He is likely to play in the NHL playoffs for just the fourth time in his 919 game career and the first time since the 2011-12 season with the New Jersey Devils. The Canadiens did not earn a king’s ransom, but it is the second time this week they’ve flipped an asset for more value than they surrendered to acquire him.
Kovalchuk’s Wild Ride
Kovalchuk returned to the NHL after signing with the Los Angeles Kings in July 2018. But that pairing was a rocky marriage from the start. It became worse under new head coach Todd McLellan in the 2019-20 season. After collecting a massive bonus in December, Kovalchuk left the Kings, allowing the team to terminate his contract. After weighing his options for a few weeks, Kovalchuk signed with the Canadiens on Jan. 3 on a one-year, $700,000 contract.
On a “prove it” contract for the first time in his illustrious career, the former first-overall pick of the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers set about doing exactly that. Kovalchuk would ultimately score six goals and seven assists (13 points) in 22 games in Montreal. But that caused a dilemma for Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin: should he try to make Montreal Kovalchuk’s permanent home? Or should he trade found money for a future asset?
As the Canadiens slipped further out of playoff contention, that decision became easier for Bergevin, and he pulled the trigger on Sunday, swapping Kovalchuk for the Capitals’ third-round pick. It was the second rehab project Bergevin completed that week, having earlier traded defenseman Marco Scandella to the St. Louis Blues for a second-round pick after acquiring him for a fourth-round pick earlier in the season.
Capitals Primed to Challenge?
Kovalchuk now joins fellow Russian nationals Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and Ilya Samsonov in a loaded Capitals’ lineup. The distraction — however historic it was — of Ovechkin’s chase for 700 is behind them. Now, they look to march towards their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
The trade deadline is less than 24-hours away, but teams still have plenty of time to negotiate before 3:00 PM ET Monday. The Capitals have made two big moves, acquiring Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks earlier this week and now adding Kovalchuk. There is no obvious need in their lineup, but top competitors will always keep the phone lines open, entertaining any move that might help their team compete in the playoffs.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.