Suggesting Ilya Kovalchuk could thrive as a first-line player in the NHL would have been enough to get you laughed out of a room in November. Really? Kovalchuk, the overpaid winger who was buried deep on one of the NHL’s worst clubs? Not a chance.
But we’re through two-thirds of January and it seems like the Kovalchuk renaissance is in full swing in Montreal. No, really.
When Kovalchuk signed with the Canadiens on Jan. 3 for a pro-rated $700,000, it signalled a clear last chance for Kovalchuk. The 36-year-old was fresh out of a messy breakup with the Los Angeles Kings, who had terminated the winger’s three-year, $18.75-million deal after he had skated just 81 games across a campaign and a half with the franchise. Fortunately for both Kovalchuk and the Canadiens, though, he has exceeded all expectations in his new digs. With eight points in eight games since signing, Kovalchuk is suddenly among the league’s hottest players, tying Tomas Tatar for first in Habs scoring since joining the club.
Helping Kovalchuk make his immediate impact with the Canadiens is that he has been the beneficiary of circumstance, in this case injuries that have sidelined Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron and given Kovalchuk the chance to skate in the top six. That’s not to say Claude Julien simply handed Kovalchuk a key role. Surprisingly, teams in wild-card contention don’t give struggling, aging players on league-minimum deals key minutes immediately. They also don’t hand those minutes to a player who fell out of favor on one of the league’s worst clubs. But the stars aligned for Kovalchuk, and the gaping hole in the lineup has allowed Kovalchuk to showcase some of that same skill that led him to a pair of 52-goal seasons and 867 career points in 905 games.
Opportunity has been a key for Kovalchuk, too. While skating alongside Tatar and Phillip Danault in Montreal, Kovalchuk’s ice time has skyrocketed to 19:36 per game, way up from the 15:25 he had averaged with the Kings this season and the 15:57 he saw in the second half of the 2018-19 campaign. Kovalchuk is earning the minutes, too, with his all-around play. It’s a small sample size, but Kovalchuk’s Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 (56 percent) is good for third among Habs forwards since his arrival and a marked improvement on the 49.1 percent he had posted in Los Angeles. His 77.8 goals for percentage, 63.3 expected goals percentage and 51.8 scoring chance percentage are among the best numbers of his career. Again, small sample size, but it’s evident that Kovalchuk has found a top-six fit with Danault and Tatar. No question it’s a better fit than his previous role with Adrian Kempe and Trevor Lewis in Los Angeles.
The biggest question, though, is whether Kovalchuk’s current level of play is sustainable. It’s not the first time since his return to the NHL from the KHL that he’s played this well. Kovalchuk was a point-per-game player with the Kings before Willie Desjardins, who has since been fired, took over Los Angeles’ coaching duties in November 2018.
The top-line role has been great for Kovalchuk’s in-season and late-career revival, but that could all crumble once Drouin and Byron return in the coming weeks. A third line of Kovalchuk, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling – three players with a lot to prove – could be fun, sure, but there has to be concern that once again limiting Kovalchuk’s chances will see him revert to the same struggles he faced in Hollywood. And there also has to be a conversation had about the next steps to take.
The Canadiens could elect to keep Kovalchuk for another season at a limited cap hit, or if Marc Bergevin believes Kovalchuk’s hot play is nothing more than a blip on the radar, the Montreal GM could attempt to capitalize on a weak trade market by offering up Kovalchuk’s services. Reality is that Kovalchuk wouldn’t net much in any swap, even with his renewed on-ice success. Does that make signing him for an extra year the best bet? That might just be the case.
If Kovalchuk truly can maintain this level of play, or even produce at a 45-50-point pace in a full season, it would be in their best interest to keep Kovalchuk around. Montreal should be looking for younger options, but with Tatar reportedly on the trade block and no immediate help on the farm, having a hard-working veteran presence can be an asset. If anything, having someone with his offensive expertise around to help the likes of Kotkaniemi, Poehling, Nick Suzuki and potentially Cole Caufield and Alexander Romanov would be worth the investment, too. If he maintains his scoring ways next year, ship him off at the deadline and the low-risk signing turned re-signing could end up as one of Bergevin’s best moves as GM.
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