Victor Mete and Jesperi Kotkaniemi referred to the 36-year-old as “a total legend on and off the ice” within just a couple of days of his arrival in the first week of January. Max Domi said he’s been completely awestruck by the big Russian since he first introduced himself after signing a two-way, $700,000 contract to resume his NHL career in Montreal.
It’s no secret that Kovalchuk’s place in the league was in doubt when he and the Los Angeles Kings mutually agreed to terminate his three-year, $18.75-million deal before even half of it had expired.
He then spent a little over two weeks on the sidelines waiting for a contender to call on his services.
That didn’t happen, but Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin—in a pinch, with Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia and Paul Byron sidelined by injury—picked up the phone and said there was very little convincing he had to do to get Kovalchuk inked to what he referred to as a “no-risk deal.”
That was the perfect way to describe this signing. If Kovalchuk came in and helped the team snap out of its lengthy funk and contributed some offence here or there, it would be a win for the Canadiens.
That the 6-foot-3, 222-pounder has managed a game-winning goal, three assists and played no less than 18:30 in any of his five games so far has been nothing short of impressive.
And then there’s the way he’s played away from the puck, showing passion, effort and a physical edge all over the ice. The enthusiasm he’s brought to the bench and the room has also been noteworthy.
“I have no issues with what he’s bringing so far,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien remarked after Tuesday’s practice. “He’s giving us a lot of good things. He’s bringing energy, he’s well-immersed in our systems and the way we like to play, and he’s respecting the plan. And, as a teammate, we noticed (in Monday’s win over the Calgary Flames) that he was probably the most excited guy on the bench when Ryan Poehling scored. He’s happy for everyone.
“It’s the players like him who serve as a good example for others.”
It makes you wonder how things went so poorly with the Kings, with whom Kovalchuk scored 19 goals, 43 points and had a minus-36 rating in 81 games.
We got to spend some one-on-one time with Kovalchuk to ask him about that, the chance the Canadiens gave him after his contract termination left him in limbo, what’s motivating him right now, plus a few other things:
Sportsnet: Why didn’t it work in Los Angeles?
Kovalchuk: It just wasn’t the right time. The expectation was very high when I got there, but obviously there was a lot of changes with the team. There were a few injured guys, a coach got fired, and then the team went towards a rebuild.
So we talked with management and decided to find a way to split apart, because I don’t have much time to waste and I wanted to play for a team that was trying to win something.
SN: Was it hard to keep your confidence up with the situation you were in?
Kovalchuk: It’s just I had never been in that role that I was given in L.A. It was tough for me. I’m useless when I play seven-to-10 minutes a night. Some guys are used to it, and they do a great job of it and that’s why they’re in the league, but I used to play a different kind of game and role.
So that was tough. I would never be able to get used to it, because I was doing extra stuff and working extra hard to make sure that when I have an opportunity to play more minutes I’d be able to. But it just didn’t happen.
SN: What was it like for you waiting for teams to call after your contract with Los Angeles was terminated?
Kovalchuk: I just told my agent to take care of things. I was with my family, because it was Christmas, and there was a trade (/signing) freeze for the NHL, too. We couldn’t do anything anyway. I was just training and spending time with family, so, actually, it was pretty good.
SN: You must have heard some of the things being said about you after things failed with the Kings…
Kovalchuk: No. I’m not a guy who reads the paper and is on social media all the time; I prefer to spend time with the kids. I have four of them, so I have a lot of things to do.
As for hockey, I love the game so much, but my family is always first. So when I have free time away from the game, I’d spend most of my time with my kids. So no, I didn’t pay attention to what everybody was saying.
But you know what they could say about a 36-year-old who was released by the team, but they didn’t know the situation. It’s obvious.
I don’t even blame those people for thinking whatever they would. Everybody has their own opinion.
SN: How has your time been in Montreal so far? How are you enjoying it?
Kovalchuk: It’s been great. Like I’ve said a lot of times already, this group of guys is special. They treat me like I’ve been here a long time. They’ve given me such a warm welcome, and I love the leadership group—Shea Weber, Carey Price. We know each other a little bit before, but we never played together.
It’s just great. I really believe and know that when the guys come back (from injury) we’ll have something special in this room. We’re never going to give up, and those three games before the break are huge. We’re going to take one game at a time and we’ll see where we’re going to go from there.
SN: Where’s your confidence at right now in your personal game?
Kovalchuk: It’s getting there. First of all, I’m just getting back to game-shape. The first game, you go through emotions and adrenaline carries you. But then we had back-to-backs and three games in four nights. It takes a little time.
But the last few games—knock on wood—I feel good. My legs feel good. But my decisions in quick time can be much better. We can all be a little bit more simple right now and shoot the puck more, because we try to pass that extra one and it seems like it’s not going our way. We have to just simplify things—and that’s me too.
SN: What does it mean to you to have been given the opportunity and linemates Claude has given you (Tatar-Danault)?
Kovalchuk: It means a lot when the coach trusts you. You want to do anything for him. I’m just taking that opportunity and my challenge and going out there and trying my best to try to help the team win.
SN: How difficult is it to find your best game when you come into the situation you were brought into—where the team was losing a lot and things were tense?
Kovalchuk: It’s a challenge. It would be so easy to come to a team in first place, but it’s more fun when it’s a challenge. We’ve gone through some bad situations, but right now we can feel we’re getting back on track and guys are getting healthy. It’s all about us—we just need to take care of our game. The team always plays fast and if we keep doing that we’ll be in good shape.
SN: You said you didn’t really care or listen to what people on the outside were saying about you, but did you have a motivation to prove something to yourself in coming here?
Kovalchuk: Like I said when I came here, I just wanted to play. If I just wanted to sit and collect my paycheque, I could have done that for another year-and-a-half (in L.A.). It’s not the reason I came here.
When I saw the situation (with the Kings) wasn’t going to work out, I tried to find a way how to fix things, and I think that was the best thing for me to change. Obviously, I wasn’t myself there, so why would I go and try to go through the wall to force it? Sometimes you just have to go a little bit around, and I appreciate that the Canadiens gave me a chance and I’m going to work hard and see where it’s going to take us.
SN: Good luck, and thank you for your time.
Kovalchuk: Thank you.