The acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk was designed to be a simple, short-term deal based on mutual need.
With four of their top nine forwards on the injured-reserve list when the Russian was signed on Jan. 3, the Canadiens desperately needed help up front.
After being cut loose by the Los Angeles Kings, Kovalchuk needed to prove he was still capable of playing in the National Hockey League.
It was a classic short-term rental with little risk for the Canadiens. If he helped the team, that was good. If he was, indeed, washed up, it was costing the team a mere US$700,000.
Canadiens Ilya Kovalchuk celebrates with Victor Mete after scoring against the Flyers in Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.Eric Hartline / USA TODAY Sports
Seven games into his tenure, the Kovalchuk experiment is a qualified success. He has moved seamlessly into the lineup and scored two goals in Thursdays 4-1 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia. That gives him three goals and four assists a point-a-game pace and he has been embraced by his new teammates. Hes happy in Montreal, although he said Thursday his goal was to help the Canadiens win and he noted the teams record since his arrival is three wins and four losses.
Theres work to be done, Kovalchuk said.
And that brings us to the big question: Whats in store for Kovalchuk in Montreal?
For starters, we have to look at the immediate future. When the Canadiens emerge from the bye week and the all-star break, they should have a full complement of healthy bodies. Joel Armia returned Thursday and Jonathan Drouin is scheduled to be back after the break. And we can hope Brendan Gallagher has recovered from his headaches, which, the Canadiens insisted, are not a by-product of the concussion he suffered on New Years Eve in Carolina.
When everyone is healthy, the dilemma facing Claude Julien is how to fit all the pieces into the puzzle.
Kovalchuk has been playing on the top line with Phil Danault and Tomas Tatar. Thats normally Gallaghers spot and presumably Julien would want him back there chasing a third consecutive 30-goal season.
The second line features rookie Nick Suzuki between Max Domi and Armia. There will have to be an adjustment when Drouin moves into one of the top wing positions. Suzukis development should be the key here. He has to remain in the middle and that means Domi, Drouin, Armia and Kovalchuk are all in the mix for second-line duty on the wings.
Julien could move Armia to the third line and resurrect the Finnish Connection with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the hard-working Artturi Lehkonen. This is a potentially dangerous third line, but Julien still has to find room for whoever is left over from the second-line juggling act.
As for the fourth line, the Canadiens should look to the future and install Ryan Poehling at centre between Nate Thompson and a player to be determined later. Thompson would be available to take the important draws, while Poehling would have the opportunity to work on the other responsibilities that go with the position.
Thats the short-term situation.
After describing himself as a soldier Thursday night, Kovalchuk was asked if he was interested in re-enlisting.
He certainly seemed open to the idea about returning next season. He talked about liking Montreal and meeting team owner Geoff Molson. At 36, he doesnt fit into Marc Bergevins youth movement, but his younger teammates have talked about his willingness to share his experience and knowledge and he would be valuable as a teacher for Suzuki and Kotkaniemi.
The key and this will also the case for Tatar will be to find the right money and the right term to satisfy both parties.
Kovalchuk has expressed his gratitude to the Canadiens for allowing him to resurrect his career and that might play into the equation if the Canadiens decide they want to keep Kovalchuk. But, as we learned a few years go with Alexander Radulov, gratitude only goes so far.
Armia doesnt miss a step: When a player has been on the sidelines for 11 games, theres a tendency to ease him back into the lineup with a lighter than usual workload.
That wasnt the case with Armia on Thursday.
Armia was fortunate he has was out with a hand injury and he was able to continue skating and maintain his cardiovascular conditioning. He needed that against the Flyers.
Armia played 29 shifts, matching Danault for the most in the game. He was on the power play, killed penalties and was on the ice for 20:49. The only forward with more ice time was Danault at 21:21. Armia didnt pick up a point, but he made an impact with five shots on goal, three hits, two takeaways and a blocked shot.