MONTREAL — They are the words Ilya Kovalchuk keeps repeating, with the trade deadline looming and with his Montreal Canadiens continuing on their improbable push to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Right now, let’s see what happens over the next two-to-three weeks. That’s what I’m focused on," the 36-year-old has responded over and over again to questions about his affinity for Montreal and whether or not it would drive him to consider staying with the Canadiens for next season.
Kovalchuk knows the reality. He knows that the team is five points behind the Florida Panthers – who have three games in-hand — for third place in the Atlantic Division. He also knows the Canadiens are six points back of the Carolina Hurricanes — who have two games in-hand and occupy the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
He knows GM Marc Bergevin won’t start unloading assets until they’ve slipped further back, but he’s certainly not oblivious to the fact that the Canadiens, who have won eight of their last 11 games, still have two non-playoff teams ahead of them in the standings.
And you know what else Kovalchuk knows? He knows that he’s got five goals and 11 points in 14 games since signing a prorated $700,000-contract with Montreal and that several other teams are interested in his services.
Here’s what we know: The Canadiens, who are hoping to win at least six of their eight games leading into the Feb. 24 deadline, aren’t likely to accept less than a second-round pick or, at worst, a conditional third-round pick that turns into a second for Kovalchuk’s services should they fall further back in the race.
And here’s what we found out on Tuesday as we were watching the Canadiens pull off a 5-4 comeback win over the New Jersey Devils: The Boston Bruins might be the most likely team to offer up that kind of compensation for the Russian sniper.
The Bruins intend on loading up for a second consecutive run to the Stanley Cup Final. Kovalchuk is a player they’re watching closely.
He’s not the only one, obviously. New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider is on their radar, and they’re also doing due diligence on San Jose Sharks icon Joe Thornton and, to a lesser extent, his teammate, Patrick Marleau.
But after the Bruins weren’t convinced Kovalchuk could help them when his three-year, $18.75-million deal with the Los Angeles Kings was terminated in December, they’ve been very impressed with what he’s done in Montreal and they understand the value of adding a player who’s shown he can fill a top-six role if they suffer an injury to a key player between now and the end of the season. It only helps that he’s competed extremely hard at both ends of the rink and that the buzz about his leadership, his energy and his sheer passion for the game make it likely he would fit well with their group.
The fact that the Bruins own a second-round pick in each of the next three drafts could give them an edge over say, the Columbus Blue Jackets, who don’t have one in either of the next two.
The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, however, are two teams that also have varying degrees of interest in Kovalchuk, I’ve been told. They both have the picks to swing it, but Edmonton is cap-strapped, which means adding Kovalckuk could make more sense to them than taking on someone else at a higher salary.
Just my own personal thought here, which is not based on anything I’ve heard, the Panthers could be another team that gets in the mix for Kovalchuk — especially if they trade Mike Hoffman for some help on the blue line.
On Max Domi’s situation
The 24-year-old’s name hasn’t necessarily hit the rumour mill as much as it’s been speculated about by several people around Montreal.
He was hoping to sign a long-term deal with the Canadiens out of his 28-goal, 72-point 2018-19 campaign, but he understood that management was going to want to see if he could repeat that kind of production this year.
Obviously, the results haven’t been what Domi hoped for, as he has just 13 goals and 36 points in his 56 games. Jonathan Drouin’s three-month absence with a wrist injury has been an undeniable factor in that—with the two showing great chemistry at points last season — but Domi has taken responsibility for games where he just hasn’t lived up to his own standards.
"There have been some games where I’ve looked at myself and know I can do better," he said on Thursday. "But there have also been a lot of them where I’ve played really well. All I want is to continue to get better and be a guy who’s consistently trusted to play against top guys every night."
According to another source, Domi and the Canadiens haven’t talked contract in "a while." And he’s staying mum on the situation.
But that’s not to say both parties won’t resume talks soon.
On the one hand, the Canadiens need to understand what Domi’s value is to them as a winger, because Nick Suzuki is trending towards becoming an excellent centre and the hope is that Jesperi Kotkaniemi will develop into one in short order. It’s the kind of thing that could make for a shorter-term deal between both parties or have the Canadiens explore the trade market.
On the other hand, the Canadiens need to take into account that Domi’s a versatile forward and he can step into the middle if both Suzuki and Kotkaniemi if one of them suffers an injury. He also wants to be in Montreal and plays with the kind of passion that will undoubtedly pay off for the Canadiens in the playoffs (if they make it there at some point in the near future).
On Domi’s end, he holds some leverage on a long-term deal that buys up some UFA years from him. He wants to be here, and the Canadiens have had a difficult time convincing free agents to come in recent years.
On Tomas Tatar
As our own Elliotte Friedman reported earlier this week, the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins have looked into potentially poaching Tatar, and we can add the Calgary Flames to that list.
The thing is, Tatar set a career high with 58 points in 80 games last season after he was traded from the Vegas Golden Knights with Suzuki and a second-round pick for Max Pacioretty, and he’s on pace to shatter that number this season.
On Thursday, suffering from the stomach flu, Tatar recorded his 31st assist of the season in a 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. It was his 51st point in his 56th game.
So, of the Oilers, the Penguins and the Flames, which team do you think has the biggest incentive to add him — Tatar has one season left at a $5.3-million cap hit, with Vegas retaining $500,000 of it on their cap — and which team has the assets to actually get it done? I’m pretty sure the answer to both questions is Pittsburgh.
But it’s going to take a lot to pry Tatar away from the Canadiens. They want to make next year’s playoffs and he’s their leading scorer.
It’s a nickname some scouts have for Carolina Hurricanes senior vice-president of hockey operations Rick Dudley.
When we saw Dudley’s name on the attendance list for Thursday’s game at the Bell Centre but didn’t see him, one scout said, "That’s why we call him ‘Ghost’."
If Dudley was camped out somewhere in the building, it would have been for a third or fourth time over the last few weeks.
The buzz is that Carolina wants some defensive depth. Brett Kulak and Marco Scandella could be players in their sights.
The New York Islanders are a vault with Lou Lamoriello in charge of hockey operations, but consider them a team that might have interest in adding Nate Thompson to their mix.
The 35-year-old has three goals and 11 points in 56 games — playing exclusively as a fourth-line centre — and he’s won 55 per cent of his faceoffs this season.
There are only 25 players who have taken more faceoffs than Thompson’s 659 this season.
Coach Barry Trotz has a history of coveting players like this. Think Paul Gaustad going to Nashville in 2012.
Note: The executive cited in this tweet does not work for the Islanders.
The Islanders obviously love what they have on their fourth line, with Casey Cizikas centring Matt Martin and Leo Komarov, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have interest in the depth Thompson can offer them.
Thompson’s reputation as a mentor and high-character guy won’t hurt either, whether it’s the Islanders or some other team interested in adding a faceoff specialist who can kill penalties and chip in on the scoresheet here or there.
The pending UFA is the most likely asset to move off Montreal’s roster between now and the deadline.
On Dale Weise
List the Winnipeg Jets as a potential suitor for Weise.
They’re one point out of the playoffs right now and pushing as hard as they can. Provided they continue to go in the right direction — and that their situation with Dustin Byfuglien gets cleared up in the coming days — they have to see Weise as an upgrade on Logan Shaw, the former Canadien who’s currently occupying a spot as a fourth-line right wing.
Here’s what Canadiens coach Claude Julien said about what Weise has done since being called up from AHL Laval 15 games ago:
"When Dale came last year I didn’t see much. I don’t know if it was because he was in the minors for a long time and whatever the case was. But he didn’t bring what he’s bringing right now. And when you’re honest and you look at a player… training camp (this season) he wasn’t a bad player, but we had no room for him. But he’s come back and we’ve put him in the lineup and he’s doing exactly what we need him to do — and that’s not fighting. I know he’s fought a couple of times, but he’s playing his role. I’ve had to use him on the penalty-kill whenever one of our penalty-killers is in the box and he just does his role. He’s not trying to do too much and he’s not trying to do more. He’s just doing a good job at what he’s supposed to do."
Weise, a Winnipeg native, is also very highly regarded by his teammates. Devils forward and former Philadelphia Flyers teammate Wayne Simmonds recently said Weise is "the ultimate team guy."
Perhaps the Canadiens would have to retain a bit of salary in a trade — he’s on an expiring deal that has a $2.35 million cap hit — but they should have no problem doing that if it means redeeming a draft pick for his services.