When Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a one year, two-way deal worth $700,000 some fans were skeptical. Fans on social media were calling the move desperate and thinking of it as more of a PR move than anything. However, once again, Bergevin has struck gold by signing Kovalchuk. He has been everything the club could have asked for and then some.
Ilya Kovalchuk Providing a Spark for the Canadiens
As Marc Bergevin explained in his press conference after signing Ilya Kovalchuk, Kovy knew this would be his last chance. He wanted to come to Montreal and just play hockey. He was not worried about the money, he just wanted to play for the love of the game. Of course, deep down you know he is playing for his pride as well, as the former superstar was told he would not be playing for the Los Angeles Kings anymore and had his contract terminated by the team.
However, this just showed that money means nothing to Kovalchuk. He left $400,000 in salary this season as well as $4.25 million for next season on the table. He just wanted to get out of Los Angeles and start fresh elsewhere. Betting on himself and proving to the world that he is still an elite hockey player and can help any team in pursuit of the Stanley Cup. So far, he has done just that.
Driving the Offence
It did not take long for Ilya Kovalchuk to get to show his offensive abilities in Montreal. Coach Claude Julien placed him on the top line next to Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar in place of the injured Brendan Gallagher. He made his debut against the Winnipeg Jets where he managed to fire four shots on goal and register one assist while playing 19:25 minutes of ice time. Not bad after sitting out for almost two months.
Since then, Kovalchuk just keeps driving the offence. He’s averaging a point per game since joining the Canadiens with eight points in eight games. This includes four goals, including an overtime winner against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, January 11th. As well as a two-goal performance in a 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, January 16th.
On January 18th, Kovalchuk scored his first goal in the Bell Centre as a Hab and the place erupted. Fans love their hockey in Montreal so getting a superstar like Ilya Kovalchuk in the lineup and having him playing the way he is, has instantly turned him into a fan favourite. Kovalchuk capped off the night with a goal in the shootout as the Canadiens went on to win 5-4. After the game, Kovalchuk described Montreal as an “unbelievable hockey city” and said he has never played in an environment like it before.
Providing Leadership in the Habs Locker Room
Another reason this signing has looked brilliant for the Canadiens is the leadership skills Kovalchuk has provided to a young Habs roster. Being a veteran of over 900 games in the NHL and playing at the level Kovalchuk has throughout his career, it leaves players in awe of what he is capable of doing. Even players such as Max Domi, who is arguably the Canadiens top forward, is a bit star-struck by Kovalchuk.
His skill was on full display when Kovalchuk scored the overtime winner against the Ottawa Senators.
In an article written by Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette, Domi had some high praise for Kovalchuk.
“To see him get that OT winner the other night in that fashion was unbelievable. Not many people could score a goal like that. Throw on the brakes on the blue line and just drift in and then snipe far side off the post and in. Ridiculous.”
He also commented on his leadership abilities.
“Obviously, an unbelievable hockey player. But he’s super-outgoing, super-vocal and, like I said, one of the most positive guys I’ve ever come across. He wants to help everyone, it doesn’t matter who you are or what position you play or what role you have on the team, he’s going to take his time to work on things with you, to communicate with you. Any time Ilya Kovalchuk comes up to you and talks to you a little bit, it puts a smile on your face. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re Shea Weber or Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Victor Mete or myself. We all look up to a guy like that. We know how good he is, how much success he’s had at every level and we’re extremely fortunate to have him in our locker room.”
Leader Off the Ice
Not only is he a leader on the ice, but he is off the ice as well. In the midst of an eight-game losing streak, Ilya Kovalchuk decided to take the entire team out to dinner. A little team bonding session organized by the veteran. Maybe a coincidence, but after that, the Habs snapped their eight-game drought in their next game against the Senators and have gone on to win four of their last five games.
With just 32 games remaining on the season for the Canadiens, time is now against them. While they managed to win four of the last five games, they still sit eight points back of the final Wild Card position. For the Habs to make it, they’re going to need a lot of help.
While Kovalchuk has been a godsend for the team, the Canadiens will need to make a decision of what to do with him moving forward. Do they sign him or trade him? It’s difficult to imagine moving a player who has brought such a spark to your team. A player who has helped bring your playoff hopes back to life. However, if the Canadiens fall further out of the picture, they may have no choice but to move him. Asset management is extremely important for a non-playoff team.
This would not be the end of the world, however. Kovalchuk is a free agent at the end of the season and could be brought back in the offseason much like Tomas Plekanec was after he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs a couple of seasons ago. This would be the best of both worlds for the Canadiens. Get assets for a player they would essentially be loaning to a team for a playoff run. Giving Kovalchuk a shot at a Stanley Cup this season and bringing him back to help their club the next. If the Habs do fall out of contention and a contending team comes calling, Bergevin may just have to pull the trigger.
Bergevin Strikes Gold Again
No matter how you look at it, signing Ilya Kovalchuk was an absolutely brilliant move by Marc Bergevin. He has been rejuvenated by the Canadiens. He will certainly be an important piece in their playoff push in the coming months. If they fall out of contention, well Kovalchuk has already proven he is still capable of being an impact player. So Marc Bergevin can flip him if he feels it’s best. He could also re-sign him, as he has proven he can help this team be better and would be outstanding for the leadership group moving forward.
Kovalchuk is a true professional. He wants to help this team get better in any way possible. Whether that’s helping his teammates on the ice or bonding with them off the ice. Kovalchuk is buying into the Habs organization. He is willing to do whatever it takes to help bring his team to the playoffs. While that’s going to be a tough task for the Canadiens, this team nor Kovalchuk will quit on that goal.