Ilya Kovalchuk wants to be part of the Canadiens' future, but do the Habs want him?
36-year-old's career was on the rocks in L.A., but he’s excelled since joining Montreal
The Montreal Canadiens and their fans weren't sure what they were getting when Marc Bergevin announced he had signed Ilya Kovalchuk at the start of January.
The 36-year old Russian star had not played a game in nearly two months and the circumstances around his departure from the Los Angeles Kings suggested that he either couldn't play at the NHL level anymore or wasn't willing to put the work in.
But Kovalchuk was determined to redeem himself.
"I wanted to stay [in the NHL] because I don't want to end my career in the NHL the way it finished in L.A.," Kovalchuk says "I have a lot of energy in myself and I feel good so that's why I decided to stay and hopefully I'll help the team."
He's certainly been a help.
The Habs were hit with a number of injuries to key forwards this month and after only one practice coach Claude Julien decided to throw Kovalchuk right onto his top line. He immediately made an impact.
"He's got great energy and enthusiasm. I think the whole team is feeding off that. A fourth liner scores for us and he's on the bench just as excited as if it was him that scored the winning goal. So he's got all the right approach and the attitude that we need for our hockey club," Julien says.
Kovalchuk has also shown that his skills aren't as diminished as the reports out of California this autumn let on.
WATCH | Kovalchuk scores in win over Sabres:
His shot seems as strong and precise as it ever was at any point in his career and his vision on ice or hockey sense appears acutely tuned in.
"I can't stand here and say why it wasn't working or why he wasn't playing [in LA]. I don't know and that's none of our business," Julien says "I mean he's almost a point [per] game and so that's been a big help to us."
Marc Bergevin has options with Kovalchuk now. He could keep his new stud on the roster and sign him to a new contract or he can take advantage of the potential market Kovalchuk's has created for himself ahead of this season's trade deadline.
Surely, Kovalchuk's stock has shot up since he joined Montreal and with his low cap hit he would be an ideal player for a team contending for the Stanley Cup to add ahead of the playoffs. There might even be a bidding war for his services, fetching a return of draft picks the Habs could use to build for the future.
Wants to stay with Habs
But a trade doesn't appear to be Kovalchuk's plan A. He says he sees a bright future in Montreal and wants to be part of it.
"This is a great team. Injuries are part of the business but when everybody comes back it's a great team here," Kovalchuk says "I really believe in this team and this group. I think it's a bright future here for sure."
Finding star players who genuinely want to play in Montreal hasn't proved to be that easy over the years, but Kovalchuk appears to be one.
He also says he's ready to embrace the role of being a mentor for the younger players in the organization.
"If you train hard and prepare your body, I can do it. I know it's a faster league now but I think having veteran guys will help the young guys develop faster."
WATCH | Kovalchuk scores 2 in win over Flyers:
Montreal has many young players in their system who could benefit from playing with someone of Kovalchuk's calibre and while it is true he would take away some ice time from them, the opportunity to play with him should pay dividends in the long term.
In the locker room, his teammates say he sets a great example for young players to look up to.
"You see the experience when he talks and the amount of energy he puts into the room, it's really nice," says current scoring leader Tomas Tatar.
The Habs also have a Russian prospect in Alexander Romanov who the team is hoping to bring over from the KHL next season. Having a player like Kovalchuk in the room would certainly help with his transition.
By all accounts, off the ice Kovalchuk is doing everything he can to prolong his NHL career and on the ice he's shown that he can still play at the highest level. In the month he's been in Montreal he's won over most of the fan base too. Now it's up to Marc Bergevin to decide if his career is going to continue in Montreal or if somewhere else.
Because one thing is for sure, it's not over.