Before anything, I feel it is important to mention just how much fun watching Ilya Kovalchuk prove he can still play hockey at the highest level has been. He was a castaway from the struggling Los Angeles Kings, and the likelihood of him retiring or returning to Russia seemed stronger than him playing for any NHL team just a month ago.
But the Montreal Canadiens took a $700,000 flyer on the former elite NHL goal-scorer, and it paid off handsomely.
Eight games and as many points with the Tricolore later — four goals and four assists for a balanced performance — it seems crazy that he was so readily available. The Habs gave him an opportunity, he took it and ran. He has now gone from an afterthought to a legitimate trade deadline target for contending teams, particularly those that may need a little more firepower to go the distance in the playoffs.
But that handsome payoff came a little too late for this iteration of the Canadiens. Even 2007 Kovalchuk would have a tough time dragging this team to the postseason, so they can’t bank on his 36-year-old self doing it. But not all is lost, because the move by Marc Bergevin to sign a player that nobody else wanted has given him a tangible asset. It was always a zero-risk move, and now he has the chance to be rewarded for it.
In my opinion, the only sensible thing for Bergevin to do at this point is to flip Kovalchuk for assets that he never had any business sniffing around for in the first place. If the Kings thought they could have done the same, they surely would have, but now it’s the opportunistic Bergevin who gets the chance to make it happen.
If the Habs somehow find themselves in contention for a playoff spot when the deadline arrives, perhaps I’d revisit my position. If they can pull off such a miracle, only then would I see value in keeping Kovalchuk around considering that a finisher like him would be necessary to completing said miracle.
To keep him past the trade deadline while missing the playoffs is to forego the addition of what would essentially be a free draft pick, or prospect. You never know what contenders might pay — it could end up being some combination of the two — which is wild to think about given that he took the league minimum just to come to Montreal for a shot.
I understand the desire to keep him around. He’s fun to watch, he’s the finisher that the team was lacking, and as a veteran he could mentor young players coming up in the ranks. But his resurgence almost guarantees that he won’t sign for league minimum again in the summer.
I assume he’d want two or three years for at least a couple million dollars per season, the exact amount depending on what he does in the remainder of this year. Are the rebuilding Habs the team he’s going to choose even if they’re among the teams to make an offer in the summer?
I don’t see him choosing to spend the twilight of his career mentoring players on a team that is trying to re-tool, rebuild, or whatever you want to call it. So, the clock is ticking on the organization’s opportunity to be rewarded for giving him his shot, and I see the trade deadline as the moment time runs out. After that, he’s heading to free agency where they won’t get anything for him leaving.
Much like I suggested with Tomas Tatar, I think the best move is to put out some feelers and see what people will offer. A draft pick? A prospect? One of each?? I’ll admit the third idea is a bit lofty, but you get a little bidding war going and who knows what Stanley Cup hopefuls will shell out.
These same teams could have taken a flyer on him themselves when he was there for the taking, but they would have overlooked him presumably because they didn’t think he could still do it. Now that he’s shown he can, the Habs have to find out what these teams would be willing to pay to correct that mistake.
They should cash in now, give him the chance to compete for a ring, and do so before they risk losing the opportunity should he elect to sign elsewhere in July. It has been tremendous fun, but barring the aforementioned miracle comeback, the only sensible thing for the Habs to do is to trade Kovalchuk at the deadline.
All this being said, I’ll happily eat my words in a month if there is reason to do so.