Acquiring Alex Kovalev from the New York Rangers before the 2004 NHL trade deadline was one of Bob Gainey’s legacy trades as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.
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The move was a much-needed one for the Habs who were lacking star power and some scoring punch upfront. Gainey traded prospect Jozef Balej and a second-round draft pick for Kovalev who played four-and-a-half seasons with the Canadiens and quickly became a fan favourite. Montreal loves its superstars, and the hockey crazy city had been lacking one for some time. Kovalev’s charisma, offensive flair, and dazzling skill set was the perfect fit.
“The Artist” Stays in Montreal
Kovalev struggled when he arrived in Montreal, scoring just three points in 12 games to end the regular season, but he came alive in the 2004 Playoffs, netting 6 goals and 10 points in 11 games to help the Canadiens reach the second round.
The sample size was convincing enough for Kovalev and the Canadiens to come to terms on a four-year, $18 million contract in August of 2005 following the 2004-05 lockout season.
Over four seasons with the club, Kovalev played 302 regular-season games, putting up 102 goals and 261 points. The Canadiens made the playoffs in three of those seasons with 21 points in 22 games.
Kovalev’s Best Season in a Canadiens Uniform
The Habs finished atop the Eastern Conference standings at the end of the 2007-08 campaign thanks to 47 wins and 104 points. Their most valuable player was Kovalev. He appeared in all 82 games, producing 35 goals and 84 points to earn a spot on the NHL’s Second All-Star Team.
Kovalev’s goals and points totals were the most by a Canadiens player since the 1995-96 season. He finished 11th in NHL scoring, marking the first time a Montreal player cracked the league’s top-15 since Bobby Smith in 1987-88. He also had 23 multi-point games and finished the season a plus-18, the highest plus-minus rating posted by a Hab since 1997-98.
As the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Montreal was favoured to beat the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the 2008 Playoffs, which they did, but not without going the distance before earning a 5-0 victory in Game 7. In the series, Kovalev scored a classic goal without his helmet after winning a one-on-one battle with Zdeno Chara and found the back of the net with a beautiful backhand shot that slipped past Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas. The Habs lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the second round.
In 12 playoff games, Kovalev produced a team-high 11 points, including five multi-point games.
Not the Ending Kovalev Wanted
Kovalev’s last season with the Canadiens in 2008-09 was a roller coaster. Despite putting up 65 points in 78 games, he struggled with consistency and finding that passion that had made him so successful with the club. In February 2009, Gainey encouraged his star winger to take some time away from the team in the hopes that a break would get Kovalev and the Habs out of a slump.
The break was the beginning of the end for Kovalev in Montreal and he signed a two-year deal with the Ottawa Senators as a free agent that summer, a decision he admittedly regrets today:
“At this point, you can say I made a bad decision going to Ottawa instead of staying in Montreal (after the 2008-09 season),” Kovalev told reporters after playing in a Canadiens old-timers game in 2013, (from ‘Brenda Branswell: Kovalev, the reluctant retiree,’ Montreal Gazette, 12/20/2013).
Many agree with Kovalev. After all, fans gathered outside the Bell Centre in protest before he left Montreal in 2009, demanding the team keep him.
Kovalev officially retired in March 2013 at the age of 40 after a 14-game stint with the Florida Panthers could not prolong his career. He hung up his skates with 1,029 points in 1,316 regular-season NHL games over 19 seasons. Along the way, Kovalev became the fourth Russian to play 1,000 games in the league and the third to score 1,000 points. He also won the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994.
Kovalev’s time with the Canadiens is comparable to his compatriot Ilya Kovalchuk’s arrival this season. Both were instantly adored for their show-stopping talent and unique personalities. They filled the team’s superstar void with panache, and both embraced every moment playing in Montreal.
Kovalev’s time in a Canadiens jersey was one of the highlights of his legendary career, and he loved being a Hab almost as much as Montreal enjoyed cheering for him.