Ilya Kovalchuk is 36 years old and has little left to prove as a hockey player. He has had a stellar career with a Rocket Richard Trophy to his name and a haul of hardware from various championships. He is closing in on 900 NHL games, even though he has been playing several of his last years in the KHL.
When he was let go by the Los Angeles Kings after a less-than-exciting year-and-a-half on the west coast, he could have just decided that his time in North America was up. He could have returned home. He could have quit altogether. But here he is now two months later, getting a chance to anchor Montreal’s power play while replacing Brendan Gallagher on the top line. Nobody could have seen this coming at the start of the season. Heck, nobody could have seen this coming even two weeks ago.
Obviously Kovalchuk is no longer the franchise player he once was. He knows that, just as Claude Julien, Marc Bergevin and the Kings know that. He will likely not be a long-term solution, which the two-way, minimum-salary contract also suggests. With that in mind, it was fascinating to hear the crowd roaring as he took his first steps onto his new home ice for his first shift as a Montreal Canadien.
As a name, “Kovalchuk” still carries a ton of weight. For a team that has been lacking star power up front to pair with Shea Weber and Carey Price on the back end, he could, if nothing else, be an asset as someone who opponents have to account for.
Kovalchuk had said before Monday’s game that he was excited to be in Montreal and that he felt that he needed to prove himself. Maybe it just did not seem fitting for a former franchise player to end his NHL career by being a healthy scratch and a castoff. If he indeed wants to prove himself, this injury-plagued Habs roster gives him a perfect opportunity to demonstrate what he can still bring to a team. The Habs need goals and if there is something Kovalchuk has proven throughout his career, it is the ability to score.
Considering that he has been without a club for two months I was pleasantly surprised by his first outing as a Canadien. Wearing number 17, he created chances both as a shooter and as a playmaker, and even showed physical prowess when he dug out the puck from the boards for Ben Chiarot’s first goal of the night. The secondary assist on Chiarot’s other goal was just icing on the cake. Kovalchuk could also have had a goal or two himself, but his lack of timing and puck control in those situations are aspects I credit to rustiness from lack of playing time until another reason relating to late-career decline has been proven.
Kovalchuk is not a world-class superstar forward anymore. He is not the swiftest skater, nor is he a reliable presence in his own zone. And that is fine. That’s not why Bergevin brought him in. This team already has tons of fast-paced, two-way skaters. What they lack is someone who can score goals, lead the youngsters up front, and complement Shea Weber on the power play. This first game has given me hope that, in the short term, that player can be Ilya Kovalchuk.