Canadiens Notebook: On Monahan’s concerning status, Suzuki’s challenge, Kovacevic’s family

Sean Monahan, seen in this file photo from Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

BROSSARD, Que. – Sean Monahan was nearing a return to play. Three weeks ago, the Canadiens said he was “progressing well” in his rehabilitation of a lower-body injury and that he’d likely be back in two weeks. Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes, in his midseason review on Jan. 18, even said he thought Monahan would be activated soon.

But the 28-year-old centre returned to practice in a non-contact jersey just three days after Hughes said that and we haven’t seen him on the ice since. And our multiple requests for updates on Monahan’s status over the last week have been ignored, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence he’s still “progressing” at all, let alone well.

The Canadiens said they’ll have an update before the end of the week on that front, but their silence in the interim speaks volumes.

It’s understandable, though. Don’t get us wrong, this isn’t some gripe about transparency, or lack thereof, because it’s no secret Monahan represents one of Montreal’s best trade chips and the team has almost zero incentive to be forthcoming on his status with the March 3 deadline finally in view.

But any team with even slight interest in the player has the same questions we have right now – Was it just a broken bone in his foot that Monahan was rehabbing? Did he, in the process of playing on the injury for multiple games, make it worse and/or suffer a different one? Did he suffer a setback or another injury during the rehab process? – and no answers being available will only lead to speculation something is seriously wrong.

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Considering the sequence of events: Monahan hurt his foot several games before he stopped playing, and on Dec. 5, he was initially listed as day-to-day; on Dec. 13, his status was amended to say he was going to miss two to three weeks; he then returned to skating in early January; he got back on the ice with teammates briefly in the second week of the month; he finally returned to practice in a non-contact jersey on Jan. 21; and now he’s been absent for 10 days without explanation. So, there’s ample reason for concern.

And given Monahan’s long injury history, we’re not sure how Hughes will be able to convince anyone he’ll be fine, especially if he can’t return to play a strong sample of games ahead of the deadline.

The value the player previously provided to the Canadiens – after he was considered damaged beyond repair following two injury-plagued seasons that led to surgery-filled off-seasons and his trade out of Calgary – would be all the GM could rely on.

That it was considerable should matter if the Canadiens have information to assure buyers Monahan will make a full recovery and be able to contribute the same to their team for a playoff run.

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“He’s a hell of a hockey player,” Canadiens goalie Jake Allen said on Monday. “He just brought that veteran presence with the way he played – low and slow, always in the right positions. Just coming from Calgary, he played that big-boy style of hockey, in the right position at the right time, and I think we needed that with a lot of our young guys. It was really impressive to see him come back, especially with all the injuries he’s had over the last couple of years. He was a huge factor, I thought, at the start of the year for us. I have a lot of respect for him, especially for him to get back to where he was after all those injuries the last couple of years. He could’ve come in and just gone through the motions on the last year of his contract, but he did not. He did the exact opposite and had a huge impact.”

Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki used different words but had the same message.

So did coach Martin St. Louis, who said, “I think you have a veteran like that, that plays in many situations, that has a presence, and we felt that as a group for sure. He was a big part of the first couple months of our season on and off the ice, and when you lose a guy like that, it’s tough to replace.”

But even if all that is true, trading Monahan for what the Canadiens were hoping to obtain for him could prove even harder if he can’t get back into games soon.

He’s certainly not going anywhere so long as his status remains a mystery.

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Suzuki will be fine

Suzuki hasn’t produced more than 10 points over his last 25 games, but he’s not concerned about it.

We don’t think he should be.

We also think the debate over whether or not he’s a first-line centre is seriously misplaced, especially considering the context of who’s missing from the Canadiens right now.

Cole Caufield is gone from Suzuki’s side, and he’s been replaced by Rem Pitlick, who’s played two more games for the Canadiens than he has for the Laval Rocket this season. Monahan and Jake Evans – the team’s safety valves up the middle – are both out. As are four established NHL wingers.

And Kirby Dach was moved off Suzuki’s line and back to his natural position of centre.

All to say, the Canadiens are decimated, and Suzuki is having to carry them – playing in all situations and averaging the seventh-most ice time per game of all NHL forwards.

He’s also admittedly banged up.

Not that the 23-year-old is using that as an excuse.

“There’s a lot of guys playing banged-up, and you just kind of get used to it and that’s your new 100 per cent,” Suzuki said on Monday. “Through the season, you’re not the same as you are during training camp, and that’s the grind of the NHL. You just prepare your body through the summer and previous experience to keep playing and play well.”

Suzuki slumped at the same time as most his teammates did – for three tough weeks in December – but he’s been playing well of late, even if his production hasn’t reflected that.

Still, like everyone else, Suzuki needs a break. And even if he’ll get less of one, as he prepares to head to Florida to participate in All-Star weekend, he’ll still get one with the Canadiens on a bye week from Feb. 1-9 and only returning to game action on Feb. 10.

We expect him to return rejuvenated to finish the season strong.

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And that doesn’t mean just producing points.

“I want to play well, play a good 200-foot game,” he said. “Production hasn’t been there as of late, but I’ve had a bunch of chances the last few games. Missed an open net last game. The power play is working it around better and getting chances, so it could’ve easily been different the last few games. But just gotta stay confident and keep going.

“I’m not worried. I’ve just been making plays, trying to get shots to the net, but just haven’t been finding a way in,” Suzuki continued. “Even if you get a second assist, it can kind of change the momentum in your favour, and I’m just trying to do everything I can to just play the right way and not cheat the game to try to produce offence.”

As we touched on in a notebook last week, that’s still a process for this young player, who’s still developing, regardless of how mature he seems.

St. Louis seems to have that in perspective.

“I’m happy with the way he’s playing as a young player who has so much on his shoulders: first, in his first year as captain; second, with a team that has many injured players; third, up against the best lines, playing lots of minutes and playing on the power play and penalty kill,” the coach said. “It’s a lot of tasks. I see this season from the start to finish as something that will help him improve.”

Johnathan Kovacevic also comes from humble beginnings

Like Arber Xhekaj, who grew up a just few kilometres away and sits right next to him in the locker room, Johnathan Kovacevic’s path to the NHL was unconventional and paved by two people who overcame incredible challenges.

Their story, which Kovacevic shared on Monday, is touching.

“My dad is from Montenegro, and his name’s Novica,” Kovacevic said. “My mother is Angie, and she’s from Bosnia. My dad emigrated when he was around 30, and my mom, around eight, and they met in Hamilton (Ont.) through the Serbian community. My mom didn’t spend that much time in Bosnia, but she lived in a village where there wasn’t running water, there wasn’t electricity, there wasn’t cars. It was a village with no roads. They had a few horses, animals. When she moved over here, it was like winning the lottery, it was amazing she could move here. But if you look back at her life when she first lived here, they lived right across from Stelco – the steel plant in Hamilton – and they had multiple families living in one house. It was a harder life for them. They had a lot of struggles, starting over with a new language and new life.

“My dad moved (at) around 30 because he could tell tensions were bad (war was breaking out). He moved here for a better life, and he came with no family. My mom at least came with a lot of people from her village and her whole family. My dad came here with nobody, had one uncle, and he was just trying to start a life for himself here with his future kids in mind, which just speaks to the sacrifices he made to try to give a better life to his kids. I get to reap the rewards of that. It’s amazing. I get to work hard to play in the NHL, but they had to work so hard just to establish a good life for us.”

Kovacevic explained that his parents knew nothing of hockey as they began to raise him, his older brother, Ryan, and sister Daniela.

“They’ve never put on skates in their whole lives,” he said. “I know when my older brother started playing house league hockey in Grimsby, they sent him to his first skate without the proper equipment. They got the starter pack from Canadian Tire, but I guess some things were missing.”

But that got sorted out quickly, and the Kovacevics settled into hockey life.

“There were countless mornings they woke up early for my practices,” Kovacevic said. “We always had 6:30 a.m. practices, but the rink would open at 6. They always got me there earlier, so I could get on before practice started. They were getting up at 4:50, just to get me up to get me to practice. I’d always get to be the first one on the ice. We had three kids playing sports, and they drove us everywhere. They made incredible sacrifices with their time, their money, everything.”

And they valued education, more than anything.

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As Kovacevic pursued a degree in civil engineering while playing at Merrimack College for three years – a degree he later completed online with a 4.0 grade-point average – he could sense the pride his parents felt.

“That meant a ton to them,” Kovacevic said. “For my dad, that was his way out. They do standardized exams over there and he was No. 1 in math and No. 3 in physics in the country for his age group when he was graduating high school. He’s in computer science, so he’s a software engineer now. Education was his way out. Education meant so much to him, and he always pushed that on us kids.”

Kovacevic’s parents preached hard work and self-belief, and Kovacevic applied those things to overcome great odds.

He was cut from his AAA team and was a 12th-round selection in the OHL Draft. He couldn’t make his OHL team and played junior A before he was passed over in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility. He was chosen by the Winnipeg Jets in the third round in 2017, and he played nearly three full seasons of AHL hockey before making his NHL debut last year.

And Kovacevic is just now playing regularly in the league because the Canadiens had a glaring need on the right side of their defence and he was available via waivers to potentially fill it.

The 25-year-old may have only one goal and six points through 45 games of his rookie season, but he’s turned heads in the way he’s played during his short time in Montreal.

St. Louis, who knew absolutely nothing about Kovacevic when he arrived in October, has been impressed.

“He’s a very nice kid. Very quiet, but confident, and as a player, he has an impact,” the coach said. “He’s willing to learn and get better. He’s been great. He’s a sponge, and you can talk hockey with him and different ways to do things, and I know he takes it seriously and he starts thinking about it and you can see the change. He absorbs feedback and applies it pretty well. I always like those guys.”

Kovacevic says the good qualities he possesses are a reflection of his parents.

He always has them in mind.

“For whatever reason, it’s a random thing, but every time I put my tie on, I think about the two sides of my family,” he said. “I’m very thankful for everything they did for me.”

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