Three nights ago, Ilya Kovalchuk was celebrating an overtime victory over the Washington Capitals. Come Monday morning, however, he’ll be strolling into the same dressing room as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson and settling in for what all involved hope will be a lengthy playoff run.
In a move that may be a sign there’s more to come from Montreal ahead of the trade deadline, the Canadiens have shipped the 36-year-old winger to Washington in exchange for a 2020 third-round pick. As part of the exchange – and what may have helped convert the pick into a selection in the early rounds – Montreal has retained half of Kovalchuk’s $700,000 cap hit.
In adding Kovalchuk, what Washington has managed to find is a cost-effective way to bolster their middle six and add to an offense that was already among the league’s elite. Through 62 games this season, the Capitals’ 215 goals are the third-most in the NHL, and at 3.47 goals, only the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs have attacks that produce more on a per-game basis. And it’s clear the Capitals believe the Canadiens have been able to tap into something inside the veteran winger to unlock the offensive upside he was still believed to possess but had struggled to showcase through the first season and a half of his NHL return.
Important now, however, will be for Washington to afford Kovalchuk the opportunities to contribute, which is what led to something of a career rejuvenation in Montreal during what some thought might be his last shot to impress in the NHL. His time with the Los Angeles Kings went off the rails in large part because he was stashed in the bottom six and given little chance to be an impact player, but stepping into the top-six spotlight with the Canadiens is what led to his becoming a valuable deadline asset for Montreal. Kovalchuk was able to prove there’s still gas in the tank, and his six goals and 13 points with the Canadiens were tied for first and third-most, respectively, during his 22-game stint with the organization.
Getting the most out of Kovalchuk will require giving him weapons to skate alongside and throwing him over the boards for special teams minutes. Never the fastest skater, he’s lost an additional step with age, but he can still be an effective triggerman. Pairing him Lars Eller on the third line is one potential option for the Capitals, and maybe the most likely, but if coach Todd Reirden determines a line-shuffling is in order at any point, a Kovalchuk-Backstrom combination could produce some magic. A puck distributor who can get Kovalchuk in the right spots is going to be paramount to his success offensively. He can't create alone. Not at his age.
The potential for Kovalchuk to be a depth producer isn’t the only upside here for the Capitals, though. By persuading the Canadiens to keep half of Kovalchuk’s already minuscule cap hit, the Capitals have afforded themselves the spending room to make another move. It’s not an embarrassment of cap space, but Washington finds themselves with a hair north of $700,000 entering the deadline, according to CapFriendly. That makes adding another minor piece a possibility for Capitals GM Brian MacLellan.
MacLellan's counterpart in the swap, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, may deserve the biggest round of applause for executing this swap, however. When he inked Kovalchuk, it was a low-risk acquisition with absolutely no downside. What Bergevin got was an effective scorer who helped keep the Canadiens in the playoff chase far longer than they had any right to be given their laundry list of injuries. And with the deadline is approaching, Bergevin has turned his Kovalchuk signing into a third-round pick that now gives Montreal 13 selections in the upcoming draft, including one first, three seconds and, now, two thirds.
As was said around these parts after Shea Weber was sidelined – an injury from which he has miraculously recovered enough to play because he’s apparently Wolverine, Adamantium skeleton and all – there was little reason for Bergevin and Co. to harbor any illusions of a deep post-season run. With that, there was every reason for the Canadiens to sell, get what they could for the pieces they're willing to move and start to retool around a roster that has some talented young players. It was a minor move, but shipping out Marco Scandella was the start of that process. Kovalchuk’s trade, though, is a sign Montreal is willing to accept this season will end on the outside of the playoff picture looking in and sell.
And, hey, if the Canadiens want to circle back around to Kovalchuk, there’s nothing stopping them. Unless he puts pen to paper on an extension with the Capitals before July 1, and put those odds at slim-to-none given their cap situation next season, Kovalchuk will hit the open market. Montreal caught ‘Kovy’ fever and come next season, he can be the returning hero, one who brought the Canadiens a third-round pick they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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