Ilya Kovalchuk has found a home again in the NHL, in the wintry climes of Montreal, truly the polar opposite of the paradise he thought he found in Los Angeles in July 2018, returning to the NHL as a free agent after his remedial 5½-season run in the KHL.
One paradise lost, a different one found, even if it’s a lonnnng stretch pass these days to think of Montreal as anyone’s hockey Shangri-La.
The Habs have struggled in 2019-20, mightily, Claude Julien’s charges at risk of equaling a franchise low by missing the playoffs a third straight season. They inched closer to an ignominious threepeat Wednesday night with a 4-1 loss to the Bruins on Causeway Street.
Once the game’s mightiest and most storied franchise, today’s Canadiens are just another entry in the Original 31, forever the societal focal point in Montreal but now lacking the cachet of even the Golden Knights across much of North America.
Kovalchuk, cashiered by the Kings in mid-December, has been just what the doctor ordered for the Habs. Just a shame that the patient already had lapsed into early-onset rigor mortis prior to his arrival at the start of January.
Kovalchuk, 36, is 6-6—12 in 17 games since signing with the Habs for the league minimum $700,000. After losing three straight upon his addition to the lineup, the Habs have gone 9-6-0 (.600).
Granted, by Kovalchuk’s standards, or even by Stephane Richer’s standards, 6-6—12 is hardly blowing the CH logo off the roof of Centre Bell. But those are solid numbers, made all the more poignant by that recent winning percentage that gives the Habs a tiny glimmer of hope that they can filch one of the two wild-card spots in the East, or maybe bump the Maple Leafs out of the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic Division.
Kovalchuk — held without a point in his first visit here as a Canadien — is long past his electrifying teenage and early-twentysomething years with the then-Atlanta Thrashers, who made him the 2001 No. 1 pick. He doesn’t have that speed or herculean force of shot, but he does have the wisdom that comes with 442 regular-season goals and 429 assists, the innate sense to keep moving, to get open, to take the shot when it presents itself and bury it.
All of that was what the Kings were hoping for, too, when they signed him in July 2018 for three years/$18.75 million. But a confluence of factors, including injuries, ill-matched coaching philosophies, and his own questionalble motivation, kept the 6-foot-3-inch, 222-pound scoring machine frozen in the Siberia of the Kings’ roster plans.
By early November, the LA front office decided to move on without him. About a month later, he was cut free, and the Bruins were among 29 other NHL teams who didn’t feel he was worth paying a pro-rated minimum wage. The Bruins kicked tires on Kovalchuk in the summer of ’18, considered offering him two years to play here, but tucked their wallet when the Kings jumped the bidding to three years.
Now it’s working precisely as planned for Kovalchuk, but across the continent, under the watch of an old-school coach in Julien, on a roster short on overall talent, although with a pinch of intriguing pieces such as 20-year-old Nick Suzuki.
Kovalchuk believes little has changed in the way he plays, how he goes about his business. The setting and the coach have made the difference.
“Like I’ve said a lot of times,” he said following the club’s morning workout at the Garden, “the coach and the teammates trust in me, put me in the right situations. And I try to do my best to help us keep fighting for the playoff spot.”
Read: Trust in LA was in short supply. As for right situations, he was an ill fit as a third- and sometimes fourth-line winger.
Had he not headed back to Russia and the KHL’s St. Petersburg in the summer of 2013 at age 30, Kovalchuk today likely would have another 400-plus games on his NHL resume. Given his career scoring rate, he likely would have some 650 career goals, within shouting distance of fellow Russian winger Alexander Ovechkin, now on the cusp of becoming only the eighth NHLer with 700.
“Time is just a number,” offered Kovalchuk, asked to contrast his scoring today, for its technique, compared with his earlier years. “It’s all in how you care for yourself, how you treat your body. Now with all the new recovery stuff, you can play way longer than guys used to . . . so you just have to take care of your body. And yeah, if I have a chance to score, I try to put it in.”
The NHL’s Feb. 24 trade deadline will be here in the blink of a Kovy 12-foot snipe. The Bruins could have made good use of Kovalchuk, this Kovalchuk, the one who is motivated and excited, the one who counts three game-winners among his six goals since pulling on the CH sweater. No one, including the Habs, truly knew what to make of him or how he would perform going forward based on how sour everything went in his season-plus with the Kings. The Habs took a shot, and got rewarded.
Many bodies, perhaps 30 or more, will be shuffled in and out of NHL rosters the next 8-10 days. Teams like the Bruins, with a reasonable shot at making a long Cup run, will surrender real treasure to pick up a player they believe can deliver, as Kovalchuk has, at a rate of 0.71 points a game. Legit scorers, as well as top four defensemen, traditionally are the most sought after categories.
The Bruins this time a year ago added Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, both of whom turned into valuable playoff contributors.
In their brief run in the regular season, their output was pedestrian, Coyle delivering 6 points in 21 games, Johansson 3 points in 10 games. A combined scoring rate of .290 per game. Less than half a Kovy.
No risk taken. Nor reward given. Nothing underscores that better than the trade deadline.
Good on the Habs, who these days can use all the good they can get.