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What could Ilya Kovalchuk bring to the Montreal Canadiens?

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Does the old dog still have more tricks up his sleeve, or is Marc Bergevin barking up the wrong tree?

NHL: NOV 09 Kings at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Amid fanfare and consternation, jubilation and the gnashing of teeth, Ilya Kovalchuk is (barring permanent visa issues) the newest member of the Montreal Canadiens. It may have come two decades or so later than Habs management originally intended, but the deed was done nonetheless. Marc Bergevin brought Kovalchuk in to make an immediate impact in a lineup that’s been depleted by injuries to Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, Jonathan Drouin, and others. But what sort of impact can the 36-year-old Russian winger still make?

Old, not dead

First off, no one thinks that the Kovalchuk poised to make his Montreal debut is anything resembling the 50-goal man of 15 years ago, or even the Kovalchuk who averaged half a goal per game in the KHL. At the same time, Kovalchuk’s 19 goals in 84 games since the start of the 2018-19 campaign would put him seventh among current Canadiens forwards in the same timespan; one ahead of Artturi Lehkonen and three in front of Jesperi Kotkaniemi. His 0.87 goals per 60 minutes would likewise put him just behind Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia (0.89) in seventh position (Ryan Poehling is excluded from this ranking for obvious reasons).

Kovalchuk is thought of as a power-play specialist, almost by default, but only five of these 19 markers came with the man advantage. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity, as the Los Angeles Kings deployed Kovalchuk at the one-timer position and the Russian fired between 25-30% of the team’s shots on goal while he was on the ice. His 1.32 goal per 60 may pale in comparison to Tomas Tatar’s 2.48 or Shea Weber’s 2.01 in the same period, but fit in better with Dustin Brown’s 1.78 or Drew Doughty’s 1.71. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, the Kings have one less power play goal (54) than the Canadiens despite the Habs being historically terrible on the man advantage throughout last season.

The problem posed by Kovalchuk’s arrival is what that means for Weber and Tatar, who have manned the one-timer positions on the first and second units, respectively, for much of the season. The problem may have resolved itself, given that Kirk Muller and Claude Julien have recently (and somewhat questionably) elected to move Weber back to the blue line and place Jordan Weal in the one-timer position.

Kovalchuk, for all his foibles, is certainly a better option than Weal, whose period of excellence last season came at Nick Suzuki’s half-wall-playmaker position. However, does having Weber at the top of the 1-3-1, a position from where he has not scored in two-plus seasons, nullify any gains made by moving from Weal to Kovalchuk?

Working within the system?

Kovalchuk has acquired a reputation, even prior to his departure for the KHL, as a defensive liability. The winger’s playstyle, which generally involves conservation of energy and motion, has lent itself to this perception, especially this year as the goals against mounted. But Kovalchuk’s five-on-five play, while weak, is not catastrophic. Over his Kings tenure, Kovalchuk’s possession numbers were below team averages, but the disparity was larger for the offensive metrics than the defensive ones.

Yes, Kovalchuk has been on the ice for 14 goals against at five-on-five this season (as opposed to five goals for). However, these numbers were inflated by Jonathan Quick’s early season ability to make November Carey Price look like Ken Dryden in his prime. Quick’s save percentage currently sits at .894, and has never exceeded .900 so far this season. With Kovalchuk on the ice this season, Quick’s five-on-five save percentage sits at an awe-inspiring .869. Jack Campbell isn’t any help, sporting an .861 mark. Lest one think Kovalchuk is solely responsible for these gaudy numbers, Quick’s five-on-five save percentage with Alec Martinez — who, like Kovalchuk, only played during the first quarter of the season — on the ice is .859.

Perhaps the biggest question concerning Kovalchuk’s acquisition is how he fits into a Canadiens lineup that, if playing properly, generally presents the antithesis to the Russian’s playing style. The Canadiens are known for their speed and aggression, especially on the forecheck. Kovalchuk is none of these things, and arguably never has been. Can Julien and the rest of the coaching staff find Kovalchuk linemates that he can complement and, most importantly, keep up with? Or will the ex-Peterburger army man exist solely for the power play on a team that draws among the fewest calls in the league?

A harbinger of things to come?

The impact of the Kovalchuk move extends beyond the man himself. Between this signing and the acquisition of Marco Scandella, Marc Bergevin is declaring that the season is not yet lost and assuming direct control of the team’s fate. The Canadiens’ shepherd, whether a paragon of wisdom or a renegade trying to save his own neck, is likely not finished in his campaign to recruit new members for his depleted crew. It simply remains to be seen whether Bergevin is guiding his charges into the playoffs or sending them on a hopeless mission.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick, visualizations courtesy of HockeyViz.