BROSSARD, Que. – There was another surprise awaiting when the slumping Montreal Canadiens arrived for practice on Tuesday – star winger Alex Kovalev had been sent home.
A day after acquiring veteran defenceman Mathieu Schneider in a trade from Atlanta, general manager Bob Gainey said he suggested to the struggling Kovalev that he skip a two-game road trip to rest his body and get his mind straightened out.
Kovalev did not accompany the team for games Wednesday night in Washington and Thursday night in Pittsburgh. His status for a home game Saturday afternoon against Ottawa and even beyond that is also uncertain.
“Alex’s preference was to stay with the team and play, but I could see in his eyes that he agreed with it,” said Gainey, adding that the 35-year-old was not suspended and would still be paid.
When asked when Kovalev would be back, Gainey said: “That’s not a question I can answer definitely now. I’d rather let a couple of days go by than to make a hasty decision right now.
“We’ll talk in the next 48 hours.”
The Canadiens have lost 10 of their last 13 games since Jan. 20, and Kovalev has only one goal and five assists in that span.
In another move that the Canadiens have had enough of the slump, 21-year-old winger Sergei Kostitsyn was sent down to AHL Hamilton and physical winger Gregory Stewart was called up. That move was made at the request of coach Guy Carbonneau and his staff.
And it may be minor, but Carey Price also ditched the red goalie pads he first started wearing when the Canadiens troubles began and has gone back to his old white ones.
Kovalev was not at the late afternoon practice where Schneider skated for the first time with his teammates before boarding a plane for Washington.
Schneider’s first experience back with the team he won a Stanley Cup with in 1993 was to have the GM come to the practice rink and inform the players that Kovalev would not be on the ice.
Kovalev led the club in scoring with 84 points last season, but he is tied for second with only 13 goals and 26 assists in 57 games in the current campaign.
He has also looked listless on the ice, rarely showing the fire that made him the team’s most popular player with the fans last season.
“The team doesn’t need him the way he’s playing now,” said Gainey.
“To score goals and help other people score, you have to do a lot of different things. To stay on task, to do the mundane, small, detail, mandatory things to keep the team afloat is a harder thing for some players than for others.”
He said Kovalev had not asked to be traded and he gave no clear signal that he was trying to make a deal, although he said anything can happen up until the NHL trade deadline on March 4.
Gainey recalled that Kovalev is a player who can snap out of a lethargy at any time and start playing like a star, as he did in the playoffs his first season with Montreal in 2003-04 and again last season.
The Canadiens have little cap space left for making deals, unless the other team accepts as much or less in salary obligations than they take on in a trade.
“We have players who are ready to come back from injury in the next week or so (Alex Tanguay), so with the trade deadline being here and the position our team is in, and some of these other elements, I think we could see players shifting around over the next couple of weeks,” added Gainey.
There was surprise around the dressing room at the Kovalev move.
“It’s probably a minor, temporary thing, but the message is clear to the players – we have to step up and move forward.” said defenceman Mike Komisarek.
Carbonneau said he hopes Kovalev uses the time with his family to get his mind together and “hopefully he’ll come back and play better.
“It was Bob’s decision and he doesn’t take decisions lightly. I trust his instincts.”
He hopes that sending Kostitsyn down and bringing up Stewart makes Montreal “a tougher team to play against.
“Gregory has played three games for us and he made a good impression. Sergei’s been struggling to become the player he was last year. We gave him all kinds of chances.
“I have no doubt that he’s a good NHL player, but talent alone is not enough to keep you in this league.”
Schneider was all smiles throughout the team’s one-hour practice. It is not the first time the 20-year veteran has been traded to a team in turmoil.
“In Toronto, when I got traded from the Islanders (in 1996), they’d just fired (coach) Pat Burns the day before,” said Schneider. “That was lot worse than this.
“It’s nothing new. Hopefully, it’s just a bump on the road.”
He has opted to wear jersey No. 24, which was worn by Chris Chelios when they were teammates in the 1980s.
“I called him this morning and told him I was taking his number,” added Schneider. “He said ‘you stole my job 15 years ago, you might as well take my number too. ‘ “
Price, who was 3-7 in his red pads, is dropping them because “I haven’t had a whole lot of success with them, have I? I’m getting new ones anyway.”
Carbonneau said Tanguay, out since Jan. 2 with a shoulder injury, should be ready to return by the end of next week. He skated with the team.