Montreal Canadiens Mailbag: Ilya Kovalchuk strong bet to return in 2020-21

Claude Julien spoke about the huge impact Ilya Kovalchuk had during his short stint with the Montreal Canadiens.

Welcome to the second-ever edition of the #AskEE Montreal Canadiens Mailbag, from which I’ve plucked out questions to answer about backup goaltending candidates, the logjam at centre, the 2020-21 defence, my favourite and least favourite moments of this past season, and Ilya Kovalchuk’s future.

If your question went unanswered, know that I still greatly appreciate your participation and encourage you to try again for the next instalment, which will appear on sportsnet.ca in short order.

Paul starts us off with the most pertinent question to ask — especially in the wake of the Canadiens making a surprise announcement earlier this week that they signed seven-year KHL veteran Vasili Demchenko to a two-way contract worth the league minimum.

If the general consensus is that Marc Bergevin is now done shopping at the position, I’m not in agreement. And that’s not to denigrate this move or Demchenko’s body of work.

There’s potential for the 26-year-old Russian to emerge as the perfect candidate to back up Carey Price, and all reviews of his play have been largely positive. But that’s anything but guaranteed, and I can’t see the Canadiens turning their backs on the opportunity to add a veteran backup at a time when so many viable candidates will likely be available on the NHL’s free-agent market this coming off-season.

If the Keith Kinkaid debacle of 2019-20 proved anything, it’s that they need as much insurance at the position as they can get.

If you thought they had enough of it in Charlie Lindgren, guess again. As much as the Canadiens like Lindgren — and he’s under contract for one more season at $750,000 — they’ve displayed little to no faith in his ability to win games consistently enough to lighten Price’s load. That’s not suddenly going to change over the off-season.

And even if Michael McNiven has the ability to fight for the job, his limited experience (of precisely zero NHL games and 58 AHL games) isn’t nearly enough to bank on. Not with the team looking to squeeze at least 25 games out of a backup.

You want a name, Paul? Without any inside knowledge of who the Canadiens might be targeting, I’d suggest there’s no better candidate for the job than Dallas Stars backup Anton Khudobin, who has likely priced himself out of Texas.

The only question is: will the Canadiens be able to get the 33-year-old who has posted a .922 save percentage over the 102 games he’s appeared in since 2017?

There’s got to be at least one team out there that sees Khudobin as a candidate for a starter’s job. But even if there isn’t, he’s got the credentials to pull in a three-year contract and an AAV that’s higher than the $2.5-million one he’s currently on to be a 1B for someone.

Could the Canadiens offer him more money on a two-year deal he’d be inclined to accept? I know some of you might be thinking they would have to be crazy to pay that much for a goaltender to play behind their $10.5-million starter, but they’ve got the cap flexibility — and the incentive — to do it. Even with Cayden Primeau waiting in the wings.

Imagine a world where the Canadiens, a team with a persistent weakness at the centre position for the better part of last two decades, have too many good centres.

Just for fun, let’s call this a “problem.”

My solution is going to run counter to a lot of the pervasive thinking out there, but bear with me as I flesh it out.

I see Montreal’s centre line as follows next season: Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, Max Domi, Jake Evans, Nate Thompson.

I’ll just get this out of the way right now: I think the Canadiens would be pleased to have Thompson back, but this time as a 13th forward and a rotation option. That was their intention in re-signing him last summer, but he won his position outright in camp and deserved to keep it for every game he played thereafter in the lead up to his trade to the Philadelphia Flyers.

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I would also suggest that Evans has an inside beat to a position because the organization thinks highly of him and he showed some good things in limited action — not the least of which was winning 52 per cent of his faceoffs over the course of his 13 NHL games.

That said, Evans has much to prove in order to be counted on night in, night out and having a veteran like Thompson return serves a dual purpose. First as insurance for Evans, and second to buy Jesperi Kotkaniemi that much more time to develop at the AHL level.

Which brings us to Ryan Poehling. One of the most interesting things that happened this season was that in his first action as a left winger with the Canadiens — after exclusively playing centre at every other level of hockey — Poehling went from appearing incapable of playing the position to suddenly looking like a perfect fit there. His ability to process the game at a high level only helped. And I don’t think it would hurt his development at all to continue at wing.

As for Domi, if his future is with the Canadiens, I believe it’s at centre until Kotkaniemi has developed sufficiently to bump him over to wing.

I’ve found myself leaning on this refrain quite a bit in conversations about the Canadiens of late: I think people need to keep in mind that Victor Mete is a 21-year-old defenceman who’s just over halfway towards becoming a finished product.

That the former fourth-round pick in 2016 has played 171 NHL games to this point is certainly in part because the Canadiens had such a desperate need at left defence. But it’s largely because he proved capable.

So, I’d say Mete has the potential to develop into a very solid player. I’d add this is a pivotal year for him to prove he can be worthy of a spot on a deeper blue line, that his skills can translate to more offence, and I’d not be in a rush to part with him even in the event that the Canadiens are able to add a top-four defenceman.

It’s a given that Romanov’s coming and it’s all but guaranteed he’ll be a fixture on the third pairing. That’s going to force Mete to up his game regardless of whether or not someone else is added to the fold.

I, for one, look forward to seeing what he can prove under those circumstances.

And no, I won’t leave the elephant in the room: Brett Kulak is a player the Canadiens have to consider trading A) because they have a logjam with Romanov coming, and B) because his value, on a deal that pays him $1.85 million through 2022, could potentially net the team help elsewhere.

I think my favourite moment of the season was watching the Primeau family embrace Cayden after his first NHL win on Dec. 11.

It was pretty special to sit with Keith and Lisa Primeau as they watched their son make his pre-season debut. Honestly, it was one of the best experiences of my career being afforded that access in order to tell this story.

In light of that, watching them hug their son a couple months later, right after he made 35 saves to become the youngest goaltender in Canadiens history to record a regular-season win, is something I’ll never forget.

Something I wish I could forget was walking into the visitors’ room after the Canadiens lost their fourth of four games against the bottom-of-the-barrel Detroit Red Wings this season.

I can tell you that the story was easy to write that night. I’m not sure there was an easier story to write all season than that one.

But there’s nothing fun about walking into a room full of dejected players and asking them questions there are no good answers to.

There’s no question he did.

Based on my information, it’s all but assured Kovalchuk will be back in Montreal come 2020-21.

That said, a lot can happen between now and then. So maybe hold off on the jersey order until he signs.

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