Montreal Canadiens Need To Strongly Consider Extending Ilya Kovalchuk

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 18: Look on Montreal Canadiens left wing Ilya Kovalchuk (17) at warm-up before the Las Vegas Golden Knights versus the Montreal Canadiens game on January 18, 2020, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 18: Look on Montreal Canadiens left wing Ilya Kovalchuk (17) at warm-up before the Las Vegas Golden Knights versus the Montreal Canadiens game on January 18, 2020, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens were desperately trying to add depth to their roster when they signed Ilya Kovalchuk. Should they consider extending him through next season?

The Montreal Canadiens have had a few rough patches this season. When a team goes of two different losing streaks of eight games, they are usually in the running for the first overall pick. The Habs aren’t quite that far down the standings, but in the midst of their second eight game skid, they did add a first overall draft pick – except this one was from 2001.

Ilya Kovalchuk was on the scrap heap after agreeing to terminate his contract with the Los Angeles Kings in December. He was on the sidelines for a few weeks, hoping to get a contract with a contender. When that didn’t happen, the Russian winger signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Habs for $700,000.

Kovalchuk enjoyed great personal success with the Atlanta Thrashers, though the team never got its act together. Kovalchuk was one of the best goal scorers in the league throughout his first ten years in North America. He was traded to the New Jersey Devils in 2010 and continued to put up points at an elite level.

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After the lockout shortened 2013 season, Kovalchuk retired from the NHL and went back to play in Russia for a few years. He was once again a formidable offensive presence on the ice, helping SKA St. Petersburg to two Gagarin Cup championships in the KHL.

Having won pretty much everything but a Stanley Cup, Kovalchuk returned to the NHL in 2018, signing a three-year contract with the Kings at $6.25 million per year. He was 35 when he signed that deal and hadn’t played in the NHL in five seasons. Though he played okay for the Kings, he was far from his offensive prowess that he showed early in his career.

Kovalchuk had 16 goals and 34 points in 64 games for the Kings in 2018-19. This season, he scored three goals and nine points in 17 games before he agreed to have his contract torn to pieces, which made him a free agent.

While Kovalchuk was playing for the Kings, the Habs were watching many of their wingers go down with injuries. First it was Paul Byron and Jonathan Drouin who have been out for over two months now. Then Joel Armia missed an extended period and Brendan Gallagher was injured three weeks ago and has played just one game since.

With almost no one else to turn to in the meantime, the Habs reached out to Kovalchuk. They offered the smallest pay they are allowed to under the current collective bargaining agreement, made it a two-way contract, and had it last only until the season ends.

It would be a hard contract to not live up to for anyone with NHL experience, and Kovalchuk has not disappointed. In fact, he has far exceeded the most optimistic expectations in his first few weeks in a Habs jersey.

Kovalchuk had an assist in first game with the Habs and then added two more in his next contest. He scored his first goal in a Habs jersey when he fired a wrist shot in overtime to defeat the Ottawa Senators. He added two more goals on Thursday night against the Philadelphia Flyers and buried his own rebound and then scored in the shootout in a 5-4 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday.

In all, Kovalchuk has four goals and four assists in eight games with the Montreal Canadiens. He has erased all doubt about what abilities he has left and has proven many people wrong in just two short weeks.

A lot of people were curious as to why Marc Bergevin would sign Kovalchuk at all. The current contract has been such an absolute steal, it is time for Bergevin to start considering giving Kovalchuk another contract.

Yes, he is 36 years old and the Habs should be looking to get younger and it makes sense to sell off veterans at the trade deadline when your team is struggling. However, there are many positives to keeping Kovalchuk around longer than just the next few weeks.

His presence on the team has been nothing but positive. By all accounts, Kovalchuk is a fantastic teammate and is becoming a fan favourite very quickly. He brings a positive energy on and off the ice that is infectious and a fantastic model for the younger Canadiens players. With a lot of younger players and prospects ready to turn pro soon, having a hardworking, positive, fun veteran presence in the locker room would be invaluable.

Two prospects in particular that could be Habs rookies next season would learn a lot from Kovalchuk. Alexander Romanov is likely to moving to Montreal from Moscow, Russia. He was excellent at the past two World Juniors, has played two full seasons in the KHL on a strong team and appears ready to make an impact at the NHL level next fall.

The only problem is he is moving halfway across the world and the Habs currently have no other Russian players under contract for next season. Wouldn’t it be great for him to sit next to a fellow Russian who has over 900 NHL games and close to 300 KHL games of experience?

Another Habs prospect that could learn a lot from a player like Kovalchuk is Cole Caufield. Kovalchuk has been a dangerous goal scorer since he was drafted close to 20 years ago and Caufield has the skills and attributes to be a goal scoring threat at the NHL level as well. Having a player like Kovalchuk to talk to about the nuances of firing pucks past NHL goaltenders would be a huge advantage for a 19 year old first round pick.

The Canadiens are going through a bit of a re-tool or rebuild phase right now. However, Kovalchuk has fit in perfectly in his short time with the franchise. Sometimes players just don’t really fit with a certain team and that happened with Kovalchuk in Los Angeles. Sometimes players click immediately with other teams and that is what happened with Kovalchuk in Montreal.

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Hopefully we get to see one more year of Kovalchuk playing with the Habs. He doesn’t need to keep scoring at a point per game pace for a one-year extension to be worthwhile. They just need him to fit in their top nine and teach the younger players, especially Caufield and Romanov how to be pros and how to be successful in the National Hockey League.