The Likelihood of Ilya Kovalchuk Returning to the Montreal Canadiens

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 and Ilya Kovalchuk were once destined for a reunion. Has an underwhelming performance with the Washington Capitals altered those plans?

In early January, the Montreal Canadiens announced the signing of free-agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a one-year, two-way contract. The AAV of the contract came in at $700,000 if he were to stay with the Montreal Canadiens and not be sent to the AHL.

A condition of the agreement between Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin and Ilya Kovalchuk was that, if the Canadiens were out of the playoff race prior to the trade deadline, the team would trade Kovalchuk to a playoff contender. This was an agreement Marc Bergevin would later honour.

Winding Back the Clock

As a member of the Montreal Canadiens, Ilya Kovalchuk saw what seemed to be the rebirth of his NHL career following an unsuccessful return to the NHL and stint with the Los Angeles Kings.

In 22 games played for the Montreal Canadiens, Ilya Kovalchuk tallied 6 goals and 7 assists for 13 points in 22 games played. Kovalchuk spent the bulk of his time with the team, fitting well into the top-6, sparking hope in the organization that they may be able to pull off a miracle playoff push. That hope, however, was short-lived as the Canadiens meagre .500 winning percentage would not be enough to bring them back into the race.

On February 23rd, whilst six points out of the playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens traded Ilya Kovalchuk to the Washington Capitals for a 2020 third-round pick. The Montreal Canadiens also agreed to retain fifty percent of Kovalchuk’s salary in the trade. Kovalchuk, having been given a choice over which team to play for, opted for the Washington Capitals due to wanting the opportunity to play alongside Alex Ovechkin.

A single goal and four assists in seven games prior to the NHL’s shutdown was not enough to make a case to continue playing for the Washington Capitals. As a result, Ilya Kovalchuk was a healthy scratch during the entirety of the Washington Capitals’ time in the Toronto bubble.

Where do the Montreal Canadiens Stand?

As per the usual, one never knows what the Montreal Canadiens have planned until the initial announcement is made. Upon shocking the Pittsburgh Penguins in qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens faced the Philadelphia Flyers in a best-of-seven series.

So far this offseason, Marc Bergevin has conducted two transactions to improve the depth of the Canadiens. Acquiring a backup in Jake Allen from the St. Louis Blues to reduce the games played by Carey Price and the acquisition of Joel Edmundson from the Carolina Hurricanes to get more size on the blue line. The glaring issue, as seen in the playoffs, has yet to be solved.

In their six games played, the Montreal Canadiens played all but two games where they did not struggle offensively. With Brendan Gallagher playing injured and inevitably missing Game 6 due to a broken jaw, the Montreal Canadiens issues in terms of top-six scoring were further exposed. The organization can opt to wait and hope for Cole Caufield to be NHL-ready in the 2021-22 season, but in the meantime, Marc Bergevin and co. are expected to make the playoffs as Carey Price and team captain Shea Weber are both in or reaching their mid-30’s.

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As the team has gotten younger with promising young talent in Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov, perhaps making the NHL next season, results are expected from the Montreal Canadiens “retooling”. As Caufield continues to develop, the Montreal Canadiens may look towards acquiring a top-six winger as a buffer. This is where Ilya Kovalchuk’s return becomes plausible.

Bringing back Ilya Kovalchuck would be seen the same way as when he was first signed in January. A low-risk, high-reward move. It was clear early on that Kovalchuk jived well with his teammates, and they would certainly be pleased with him returning.

However, question marks surround the likelihood of Kovalchuk being able to maintain his play for a full season. Ice time played a factor in Kovalchuk’s time with the Capitals, seeing a decrease from his time with the Canadiens, but he also appeared visibly slower and lacked the finesse he had in Montreal.

That being said, the Montreal Canadiens may be better off looking to acquire a top-six winger on the younger side who can develop alongside the younger Montreal Canadiens players while also complementing Caufield when he enters the league. If rumours are true that the Winnipeg Jets are looking to move Nikolaj Ehlers, the phone should not be leaving Marc Bergevin’s hands until a deal is made as you could not find a better fit for the roster.

In Chicago, Brandon Saad would also fit the Montreal Canadiens mould well in acquiring a consistent top-six winger with vast amounts of playoff experience, and Stanley Cup wins under his belt. The Canadiens will be dealing with cap crunch the following season, and acquiring Saad would add to it.

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It is Likely….. But is it Necessary?

The reacquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk by the Montreal Canadiens is well within the realm of plausibility. Should Marc Bergevin remain unsuccessful in acquiring a top-six scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk may serve as a last resort until he does find one. However, if one thing is for certain, if the Canadiens are to make a push for the playoffs, they will need to address this issue as a lack of scoring would keep them out of the mix.