Canadiens’ Ilya Kovalchuk signing a ‘no-risk’ move that could pay off

Eric Engels joins Hockey Central to break down the moves made by Marc Bergevin in acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk and Marco Scandella for the Montreal Canadiens.

BROSSARD, Que. — Last time I watched Ilya Kovalchuk play was the last time he appeared in an NHL game, and the impression he left, not only on me but also on one pro scout whose opinion I hold in high regard, wasn’t a very good one.

"Any team with actual scouts doesn’t touch Kovalchuk," the scout in question said after the Montreal Canadiens beat Kovalchuk and the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 at the Bell Centre on Nov. 9.

"Can’t move, doesn’t want to move, and his shot, which used to be lethal, is not good anymore," the scout added.

It was in the leadup to Kovalchuk’s relationship with the Kings — and his three-year, $18.75-million contract — being terminated that Sportsnet’s Anthony Stewart sent out a series of tweets asking fans of several NHL teams if they were interested in the 36-year-old’s services. He photoshopped Kovalchuk into several uniforms and said, "I’ll hang up and listen."

Here was my response to Stewart’s tweet showing Kovalchuk in a Canadiens jersey:

And now, with the news coming down on Friday that Kovalchuk signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Canadiens — a deal that will pay him a prorated $700,000 salary in the NHL and $70,000 in the AHL — that theory might actually be put to the test.

In all seriousness, when Marc Bergevin stood in front of reporters some hours after making this move and defended it by saying it was "no-risk," I was nodding my head in agreement.

As Bergevin pointed out, the Canadiens are missing four of their top nine forwards in Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia and Paul Byron, and, realistically, only Gallagher has a chance of returning at some point over the next nine games the Canadiens will play before taking their bye week. And after watching them completely outplay the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 2-1 loss on Thursday, watching their all-out effort lead to 70 shot attempts and no more than one goal, Bergevin made a move thinking it can’t hurt to try something.

And this move wasn’t done with any illusions of Kovalchuk coming to Montreal and suddenly becoming an incarnation of his former self — a two-time 50 goal scorer who topped the 30-goal mark in eight of his 11 NHL seasons — but more with a hope that he can potentially take Jordan Weal’s spot next to Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling, and finish a couple of the chances Weal has missed in not producing more than a goal in his last 22 games.

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It’s a move made, in concert with the deal Bergevin swung on Thursday to bring in veteran defenceman Marco Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a 2020 fourth-round pick, which could help the Canadiens earn a winning record between now and the bye week. A move that cost close to nothing, but could pay off.

"He has to buy in," said Bergevin of Kovalchuk, who scored three goals and had nine points in 17 games with the Kings this season.

"It’s his last chance."

Canadiens centre Nate Thompson, who played with Kovalchuk before being traded to Montreal at last year’s deadline, believes the big Russian might make good on that chance.

"Sometimes you go to a new team, new coaches, new players, and sometimes it can gel," Thompson said after Friday’s practice. "I think it could fit. Kovy’s a guy who can make plays. He’s good offensively, he’s a big body. We’re a team that skates really well, we make plays, and I think that can bode well for him."

Thompson said Kovalchuk is as hard a worker as he’s come across and said he would be extremely motivated.

When Bergevin was asked if he could potentially be disruptive to the team’s chemistry, he said there were no red flags about Kovalchuk’s character in his due diligence.

"(Canadiens assistant GM) Scott Mellanby had him as a captain in Atlanta, I’ve never heard anything bad about Kovy," the GM continued. "He’s a hard worker, he’s a good person. Guys that perform, they want to score … I get that, and in L.A. it didn’t work out. I talked to (Kings GM Rob Blake), he’s never caused problems. He’s a good person, I did check that out."

Whether or not Kovalchuk can be a good player is highly questionable.

You have to think part of the reason Bergevin had no issue convincing him to take a two-way contract worth such a negligible amount — and he said he had no issue convincing him — is because no one else was really interested in his services.

The hope has to be that Kovalchuk is sparked by that.

For what it’s worth, the Canadiens players we spoke to on Friday were encouraged by the news that came down as they were hitting the ice for practice. Nick Suzuki, the 20-year-old rookie, called himself a big fan of Kovalchuk’s. Defenceman Victor Mete said he used to regularly choose Kovalchuk as a player he’d use to build a team with in his EA Sports NHL games.

And then top-line centre Phillip Danault got to the root of what Kovalchuk’s acquisition means to this Canadiens team at this moment.

"That (Bergevin) helps us like that — I think he believes in us and he wants to give us a little hand," Danault said. "We have so many guys out, Army, Gally, all these guys, and that’s two righties right there and two top-two (right wingers), so Kovy’s not going to be (a) bad (thing) for us."

If his work visa gets sorted on time, Kovalchuk will make his Canadiens debut at the Bell Centre on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, though Bergevin did caution that was improbable.

But Scandella will suit up next to Cale Fleury on the team’s third defence pairing, and the Canadiens will begin their push to stay alive in the playoff race.

"I’ve watched our team perform … they’re not giving up," said Bergevin.

It’s clear with the moves he made over the last 24 hours that the Canadiens GM isn’t giving up, either.

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