In the span of three weeks, thanks to eight points in eight games, the conversation around Ilya Kovalchuk has shifted from “what was Marc Bergevin thinking?” to “what can Marc Bergevin get?” However, while an attitude that Kovalchuk will inevitably be suiting up for his third team this season at some point pervades the conversation, the Montreal Canadiens are not better served by unloading the veteran at all costs.
Despite possession numbers that place the team among the league’s best, the absence of a game-breaking player — someone capable of turning a close game in a single stroke of brilliance — has been the bane of the Canadiens’ season. And while Kovalchuk’s body is showing most of his 36 years, it’s been evident that the Russian’s mentality and hockey sense remain uniquely elite within the Canadiens organization.
“Does he have anything left?” “How would he fit in?” “Can he keep up?” Those were the questions upon Kovalchuk’s arrival in Montreal. And within the first weeks, Kovalchuk’s response has been more Rachmaninoff than Stravinsky. Rather than embrace the chaos that is the Canadiens’ high-energy, up-tempo gegenpress, Kovalchuk identified how his skills best fit within the system. Instead of trying to keep up with Tomas Tatar, Kovalchuk occupied spaces vacated by opponents forced to defend the aggressive Slovak. Instead of trying to defend alongside Phillip Danault, he adjusted his game to the presence of the Habs’ security blanket. Rather than trying to dangle like Max Domi or Nick Suzuki, he made it a mission to make safe plays at important times while giving the youngsters emergency options when necessary.
A needed audacity
Above all else, Kovalchuk’s confidence in his abilities adds a new dimension to a squad that has been prone to crises of self-belief at various points this campaign. Where other Canadiens would be afraid to create, instead opting for safe plays, Kovalchuk operates in audacity. When the team needs something to happen, rather than hoping that it will occur, he believes that he can make it so.
A good example of this controlled audacity is the Russian’s assist on Victor Mete’s goal against the Detroit Red Wings on January 7.
From a technical perspective, this is not a difficult play for an NHLer. Put the team in a practice or exhibition situation and most of the players could pull off Kovalchuk’s blind backhand pass under the circumstances. The exceptional nature of the move comes from his willingness to attempt it.
With the team having lost six in a row and Detroit having equalized after being 2-0 down, most of the players on the team would have declared the move over once Suzuki’s pass went astray. The safe option then would have been to corral the puck and take it down low, giving both the offence and defence a chance to stabilize and reset.
But the Wings are still the Wings, and Kovalchuk sees that not only is the opponent in man-coverage, but that Mete has beaten his defender and has a clear path to the slot. The move may be broken, but it is not dead, and Kovalchuk takes it upon himself to put it back together.
Finding the right price
Should the Canadiens be out of the playoff picture come the NHL Trade Deadline, It’s tempting to trade Kovalchuk for the best offer available, embracing the afterglow of having conjured something from nothing. But to think of Kovalchuk’s retention on the squad as having no continued benefit to the team, its players, and its coaches is folly. Kovalchuk’s mentality is something that separates great players from good ones, and elite players from great ones. Moreover, his example spurs the coaching staff to continue giving talent the opportunity to blossom rather than making them abandon those skills on the fourth line. Kovalchuk is living proof that how the Canadiens handled Alexander Semin was a mistake.
The Canadiens would do well not to underestimate Kovalchuk’s value, both as a tradable asset and an internal presence. There is a good price for Kovalchuk, and it — at present — is arguably higher than the return that Tomas Plekanec fetched in 2018. If that price is not offered, Bergevin must be prepared to walk away.
Three months of training and playing with Ilya Kovalchuk, or the organization drafting the 2020 version of Lukas Vejdemo or Brett Lernout. What will ultimately benefit Suzuki more?