MONTREAL — Perhaps this isn’t goodbye, but more like see you later.
For Ilya Kovalchuk came to Montreal and truly fell in love with being a Canadien, and there’s a chance he’ll return as an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and sign the contract that was presented to him before he was traded to the Washington Capitals on Sunday and given a chance to continue his lifelong pursuit of a Stanley Cup.
The Canadiens got a 2020 third-round pick back from Washington and retained 50 per cent of Kovalchuk’s prorated $700,000 contract, which he signed on Jan. 3 — just two weeks after he and the Los Angeles Kings terminated his three-year, $18.75-million contract before it was halfway through. And though it doesn’t seem like enough given Kovalchuk’s torrid start in Montreal, it was all GM Marc Bergevin was able to attain after the 36-year-old produced just one point over his last seven games.
Should Bergevin have pulled the trigger earlier?
It seems that way, with Kovalchuk scoring six goals and 12 points in his first 14 games with Montreal and the Canadiens not gaining any significant ground in the playoff race. There were at least four other teams outside of Washington that expressed varying degrees of interest in his services, though no formal offers worth accepting came across Bergevin’s desk at that time.
There were other factors at hand here, too.
• That Kovalchuk and the Canadiens hadn’t abandoned hope that they could pull off the improbable after winning eight of those first 14 games.
• That there were other dominoes that needed to fall before the Canadiens could hope to obtain what they were looking for (a second-round pick, or at worst a conditional third that would become a second) in a Kovalchuk trade.
• That his offence dried up at the precise moment they moved him into the type of role he was more likely to fill with any of the teams that were interested in acquiring him.
Now Kovlachuk is gone to the Capitals to join the Great 8 and a team that’s just one season removed from being crowned Cup champions. Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Oshie, Vrana, Carlson, Holtby, Samsonov — among others; they were a threat before Kovalchuk arrived.
But now? Watch out.
Don’t think for a second that the big Russian isn’t grateful to the Canadiens and Bergevin. Kovalchuk was holding out hope a contender would sign him out of his contract termination with the Kings, but none were willing to take that risk before seeing him prove he could be infinitely more effective than he was in Los Angeles. The Canadiens gave him an opportunity to salvage his NHL career, they immediately put him with their best players, they gave him a top-line power-play role, and they gave him 18:54 of ice-time per game.
He took advantage of it, and his gratitude was on full display from Day 1.
“I love everything about this team,” Kovalchuk said back on Super Bowl Sunday, following the team’s 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. “The way everyone has welcomed me to the fans, who are unbelievable.”
“This group of guys is special,” he added. “They all care, they want to win, they want to be better. And all the young guys like (Nick) Suzuki … and (Jesperi Kotkaniemi) and (Cale) Fleury — they sent them down, but they’re all ready to play. This team has a bright future, and if I can be part of it that would be really good.”
Kovalchuk was with the team for 51 days and his impact on its future was felt throughout.
He blew his young teammates away with his dazzling skill, with his size and strength, with his commitment away from the puck, with his practice habits, with his determination, with his kindness (he bought Brett Kulak a Rolex for giving up No. 17 upon his arrival), but most of all with his passion.
The older guys were equally taken aback.
“It’s how much he loves the game,” said 28-year-old Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot moments after Kovalchuk scored his fourth game-deciding goal — and this one against the Toronto Maple Leafs — on Feb. 8. “He’s not the youngest guy anymore, but every day he’s… whatever he’s working on in the gym, on the ice… he’s as passionate of a guy as I’ve ever seen playing the game. That’s what’s made him one of the best players for his generation, one of the best goal scorers; it’s just how much he loves the game. And that’s what’s common among the great players is just how much they love the game. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler — guys like that come to mind when I think of guys who have the same kind of passion for the game that Kovy does.”
It’s a passion that legitimately could be rewarded with a Stanley Cup this spring.
And then, perhaps, Kovalchuk will come back to Montreal and put pen to paper on a deal that will be waiting for him from the Canadiens. There are no guarantees of it happening, but it’s also not a given that this is goodbye.