Montreal Canadiens: Ilya Kovalchuk Is Not The Russian That Should Mentor Alexander Romanov

MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 08: Ilya Kovalchuk Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 08: Ilya Kovalchuk Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens picked up Ilya Kovalchuk off the scrap heap in early January. He played well for them and brought a third round pick to the Habs when he was traded to the Washington Capitals. He should not be brought back in free agency.

The Montreal Canadiens made a few shrewd moves in the midst of a lost season to add a couple of decent draft picks to the pile. Just after the calendar flipped to 2020, the Habs were staring at a nearly impossible climb in the Eastern Conference standings. The playoffs seemed impossible, but general manager Marc Bergevin got creative and added two early draft picks because of some intelligent acquisitions.

First, he traded a fourth round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for Marco Scandella. The Habs had a need for some depth on the left side of their defence and the Montreal native was a worthy gamble with such a low acquisition cost.

Coming in at an even lower cost was Ilya Kovalchuk. The first overall pick from 2001 saw his value plummet during a year and a half with the Los Angeles Kings. The Russian winger was arguable the best goal scorer in the world during his first decade in the National Hockey League. Those talents were not on display very frequently during his stint with in California.

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The Kings and Kovalchuk decided to tear up his contract after paying him a bonus on December 15th. This made the former sniper a free agent in the middle of the season, and no longer did a team that was interested in acquiring him have to deal with his $6.25 million contract that was not supposed to expire until the end of next season.

Bergevin picked him up literally off the scrap heap as it was starting to look like no one wanted him. On Christmas Day, Kovalchuk must have been thinking a return to the KHL where he spent five seasons after bolting from his 15 year commitment to the New Jersey Devils in 2013.

That’s when Bergevin offered him a no-risk deal from the Habs. Kovalchuk accepted the one-year, two-way, $700,000 contract from Bergevin and was a member of the Canadiens. He played well immediately upon stepping on the ice with the Habs and scored some big goals. His game winner in overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs was a great moment in a dreadful season.

Kovalchuk would have a bit of a renaissance for sure during his short tenure in Montreal. He scored 13 points in 22 games and the guy who looked to be unwanted by the entire league suddenly was a hot commodity as the trade deadline approached and he fetched the Habs a third round pick from the Washington Capitals.

It was a great story, but it should also be the end of Kovalchuk’s story in Montreal.

There were murmurs even before Kovalchuk was traded that he could be re-sign with the Habs as a free agent in July. Bergevin even mentioned something about it in an interview with La Presse on the weekend, which certainly seems like tampering to me, but alas, there appears to to be mutual interest in Kovalchuk returning to Montreal.

One reason to bring him back would be to mentor another young Russian, Alexander Romanov who is going to be heading from the KHL to Montreal in September. It would be great to have a veteran Russian on the team to help him with the transition, but Kovalchuk is not the right choice.

First of all, if you look a little closer at Kovalchuk’s numbers, he got off to a great start with the Canadiens, but quickly fizzled. He had eight points in his first eight games in a Habs sweater, but then scored just two goals and three assists in his final 14 contests. He will turn 37 years old in April, and is more likely to be the “five points in 14 games” type of player, rather that the point per game guy we saw for a short time frame.

Also, there is another Russian who is going to be a free agent that is a far better fit for what the Canadiens need right now and that is Anton Khudobin.

The Russian goaltender has proven to be an excellent backup during his NHL career. He has played the past two seasons with the Dallas Stars behind veteran Ben Bishop who is a Vezina Trophy candidate since Khudobin showed up. When Bishop’s workload was cut down, his numbers shot up and suddenly he wasn’t getting injured near the end of every season.

Khudobin started 37 games last season for Dallas and was excellent, posting a 2.57 goals against average and a .926 save percentage. This season he is on pace for a few less starts but he has been even better with a 2.23 GAA and a .930 SV%.

Khudobin will turn 34 before next season begins and it is likely he will probably be looking for a raise on his $2.5 million salary. However, his past two seasons have been his best and he could be just fine finishing out his career as Carey Price’s backup, in a cultural city like Montreal. I’m sure his teammate Alexander Radulov has been telling him some fine stories about his time in Quebec and how much Russian players seem to be adored in la belle province.

Signing Khudobin would allow the Canadiens to back off Price’s workload next season and give him 50 or so starts instead of the 70 he is on pace for this season. Khudobin could provide exceptional relief for Price while starting 30 games and it would allow Price to be at his best at this time of year when he has played 40 games instead of the 55 he has already suited up for this year.

Also, Khudobin has been around the NHL for nearly a decade. He has played for the Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins and Stars. He has been all over the league from coast to coast. He represented his country many times during his career and has a lot of experience to draw from.

Not only would be be the perfect backup for Carey Price, he would also be the perfect mentor for Romanov. Kovalchuk can’t tell Romanov how to play positionally in front of the net. He can’t explain to him the finer details of defending the top players in the league. He can speak Russian, but so can Khudobin. Khudobin could also get his point across about what he wants Romanov to do in front of him during the play. He could be a leader for not just Romanov but all the young players that will be entering the Bell Centre in the next couple of seasons.

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The Kovalchuk story was a great one during a miserable year, but it should be over. If Romanov needs a Russian teammate to help him along next year, it should be Anton Khudobin and not Ilya Kovalchuk.