Despite being a relatively strong even-strength team with a surprisingly efficient power play, the Montreal Canadiens just haven’t been able to find the consistency necessary to keep themselves in playoff position this season.
Much of the focus has been placed on goaltending — both on Carey Price and the lack of a serviceable backup on the roster — but a lot of the inconsistency began when the Canadiens lost Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron to injuries in the same game in mid-November.
Adding Joel Armia and Brendan Gallagher to the injured list over the last two weeks is just insult on top of injury, as both players have been key cogs in the Canadiens offence, and Gallagher is likely the best player on the team, period.
With that long list of important forwards out of commission, Marc Bergevin decided to roll the dice and hope that the same magic that occurred when the Canadiens acquired Alex Kovalev back in 2004, and Alexander Radulov in 2016 to could happen again with another Russian in Ilya Kovalchuk.
Unlike those players, Kovalchuk isn’t at or near the end of his prime years. Based on the way he’s played in Los Angeles the last two seasons, he’s pretty much running on fumes at this point. At 36 years old he’s not anywhere close to the superstar he once was in the NHL, and make no mistake that at one time Kovalchuk was one of the best players to grace the ice in this league.
But also unlike those players, Kovalchuk isn’t taking up much space under the salary cap.
Some uncharitable people will likely see this signing as a panic move by Bergevin, desperately trying to keep his team afloat after those injuries to Gallagher and Armia to close out 2019. Panicking managers don’t usually sign deals with absolutely zero inherent risk, though. Kovalchuk’s one-year, two-way contract with the Canadiens is worth less money than what teams get in cap relief for burying a player in the American Hockey League.
Bergevin clearly is in a desperate situation if he wants to make the playoffs, but the more desperate person here is Kovalchuk, who wouldn’t have taken such a low salary if anything else was on offer. This is Kovalchuk’s chance to resurrect his NHL career and battle for a new contract this summer, so he should be highly motivated to be a difference-maker.
The question though, is how likely is he to be able to make a difference? He wasn’t great for the Kings to say the least, but let’s look at the last two seasons and see if there’s anything that stands out as a sign he’s got something left in the tank.
Pushing play in the right direction was never the biggest of strengths for Kovalchuk, but his impacts in Los Angeles over the last season and a half are worryingly poor, especially on the quality side of things.
As a winger, Kovalchuk isn’t going to have a huge impact on defending the slot, but he isn’t creating nearly the amount of offence while on the ice that you would expect from a player who is supposed to be there to create offence.
With that said, there’s lots of players around the league who aren’t the key players on a line, who have negative on-ice impacts overall, but still have talent in specific areas that prove worthwhile. Not to mention that the Kings aren’t the most talented offensive team, so Kovalchuk didn’t always have a lot to work with.
If we break things down to the individual level, is there more reason to hope there’s something there with Kovalchuk?
Kovalchuk has improved his own quality shot rate over last season, specifically focusing on shooting from the high slot — which is exactly where you want a player like him shooting from — but strangely he’s been receiving fewer passes to create cycle chances, and getting fewer shots off the rush.
That isn’t necessarily because he can’t partake in rushes, because he’s still an above league-average playmaker off the rush. For an older player who was never really known for being a speedster, it’s encouraging that he’s capable of at least being involved in creating off the rush, but he isn’t going to be the shooter on those plays it seems.
After a really rough year last season from a playmaking perspective, Kovalchuk is back up to a league-average level of slot pass completions, but it’s important to note that no team in the NHL completes fewer slot passes than the Kings do this season — meaning Kovalchuk’s league-average numbers there are actually a whopping 31 per cent better than the average Kings forward.
As opposed to L.A., the Canadiens play a pretty dynamic offensive style that’s built around four lines that can all score, which has been hindered drastically by all these injuries. It’s entirely possible that an insulated Kovalchuk could be a contributor for them without hurting too much on the defensive side.
This isn’t to say that prime Kovalchuk is going to burst onto the ice at the Bell Centre and ignite the fans the way Kovalev did back in the day, but as a middle-six contributor? There’s no reason not to see if this can work.