Ilya Kovalchuk fit in well with the Washington Capitals despite only slotting in for only seven games. After being acquired from Montreal for a third-round pick on February 23, Kovalchuk played on the Capitals’ third line and the second powerplay unit, registering four points (1g, 3a) and a 54.6 shot-attempts percentage. Right-wing Richard Panik, whom Kovalchuk replaced, was bumped down to the fourth line, giving the team even more forward depth on the fringes. Kovalchuk is also close friends with Alex Ovechkin (they’ve wanted to play together since they were 13) and head coach Todd Reirden (Reirden mentored Kovalchuk in ATL as a rookie).
But regardless of how good things have gone in DC and what happens in the future, Kovalchuk, who is only making a prorated $350k salary with the Capitals, appears very likely to return to Montreal next season.
Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reported that, “Based on my information, it’s all but assured Kovalchuk will be back in Montreal come 2020-21.” Engels included all the usual caveats that nothing is 100 percent official until a contract is signed.
After languishing for two seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, Kovalchuk was released and eventually signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Canadiens for the veteran minimum on January 3. There, Kovalchuk saw his NHL career re-born.
“When I get there (Montreal), the team was great,” Kovalchuk said. “The atmosphere, it’s unbelievable. I was there for a month and a half, but it felt like home.”
In 22 games, Kovalchuk tallied 13 points (6g, 7a) in 22 games. He also scored an overtime game-winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 8.
“He meant a lot in those 22 games,” Habs head coach Claude Julien said. “Just in a time where we really needed some help because of all the injuries. He came in, especially at the beginning, and was scoring and doing all the right things. What I like about Ilya, and again, seeing him from afar when he first came in the league with Atlanta and when he moved on to Jersey, I saw a guy who really wanted to produce and really focused a lot on producing. What I saw from Ilya — and I used that example a lot — is that I saw a lot of Mark Recchi. I ended up getting Mark Recchi in Boston near the end of his career and playing days. He really had a focus on what was the most important thing. It wasn’t as much he wanted to score. He really wanted the team to do well. And that’s what I saw from Ilya Kovalchuk when he came here. He really cared about the team. He really cared about his teammates. He really cared a lot about helping the team.
“He would be on the bench. A fourth line guy would score for us. He was the guy that was jumping the highest and was so happy for that guy,” Julien added. “You saw a veteran player bringing the right example to everybody else. On the ice, off the ice, days off, he would be in the gym working out. He was a great example for young players to see: a guy at his age doing all the right things and understanding that you can’t just rely on your talent, but you have to work hard at it.”
Kovalchuk and his hockey-playing family, who have a home in Beverly Hills, seemed to love it up north in the frigid temperatures.
Kovalchuk’s loyalties to Montreal may be even stronger due to the fact that general manager Marc Bergevin let the forward choose which team he’d finish the season with.
“It’s a business but I appreciated everything Montreal done for me – especially Marc,” Kovalchuk said. “He ask me, actually, and I think Washington would be a really good fit for me. I know a lot of guys there and I’m very excited to go there for sure.
“It’s a great chance to achieve something special,” Kovalchuk added during a recent podcast interview.
Of course – only if the season concludes.
Screenshot courtesy of Sportsnet
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