When Ilya Kovalchuk and the Los Angeles Kings decided to part ways, it became clear that the veteran winger wanted to suit up for a contending team. Boston and Pittsburgh were immediately thought of as potential landing spots, but that never ended up working out.
Instead, he signed a low-risk contract with the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs aren’t contenders by any means, but they’ve been the perfect fit for Kovalchuk. But what does the team do with him now that the trade deadline is approaching?
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin still has plenty of time to make his decision. The trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 24 anyway. But unless another team is willing to offer something the Habs can’t refuse, they should seriously think about keeping Kovalchuk around for another season.
For example, if any team is willing to ship them a first or second-round draft pick (very unlikely), Bergevin should take that deal. If not, there’s really no point in trading away a player who has fit in so well in such a short amount of time.
Let’s take a look at how well the 36-year-old has played since going to Montreal.
Montreal has suffered through some tough injuries this season. Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron have all missed an extended period of time. When they brought Kovalchuk in, they were desperate. They had just lost Gallagher and they needed healthy bodies with the slightest amount of offensive upside.
He had three goals and nine points in 17 games with the Kings before leaving there. In eight games with the Canadiens, he’s managed to score four goals, four assists and a shootout goal. The Russian forward also hasn’t looked as slow as advertised in his small sample. He’s not a speedster by any means, but he’s been able to keep up with the pace of play on the ice. And his teammates really seem to like him.
“Obviously, he’s a legend first of all,” teammate Max Domi said, per the Montreal Gazette. “And you see the plays he can make now are like he’s still in his heyday. I know he’s getting older, but you can never tell. He’s got a great sense of humour, he’s a great guy. Super-positive, super-vocal, which I was surprised about. But he’s one of the most positive guys in our locker room in terms of keeping guys accountable and stuff like that. So it’s great to see and he’s a big part of our team.”
When he first joined the Canadiens, he spent some time on a line with Domi. Head coach Claude Julien quickly decided to move him to the top line with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar in the absence of Gallagher. Kovalchuk isn’t known for his defensive awareness and the Danault line handles the heaviest defensive responsibilities. Somehow, he’s found a way to fit in really well with his teammates.
His advanced numbers also indicate that he’s been the perfect fit in Montreal. His CF% is at 56.03 percent, his FF% is at 56.83 percent, his GF% is at 77.78 percent, his xGF% is 63.25 percent and his HDCF% is at 55.10 percent.
51.76 percent of his starts have been in the offensive zone, but he’s also surprisingly been on the ice for 41 defensive zone starts, which is a little surprising.
Assuming the Canadiens don’t get blown away by a trade offer from another team, they should bring him back on a year-to-year basis. As good as Kovalchuk’s been, they can’t commit a multi-year deal to him. If he’s willing to sign a one-year deal at a reasonable amount of money, there’s no reason why a team like the Canadiens shouldn’t bring him back.
Yes, the Habs should probably be looking to get younger, but if Kovalchuk can produce at a level anywhere close to what he’s doing right now, there’s no sense in getting rid of him so quickly. Is he a 30, 40 or 50-goal scorer? No way. But if he can net you 20 goals, make your power play more dynamic and help recruit a free agent or two during the off-season, he’ll be worth the investment.
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.