The Habs have been hit hard by injuries as of late and they’ve dipped into the free agent market to try to help in that regard as they’ve signed winger Ilya Kovalchuk to a one-year, two-way contract. The deal will pay the league minimum salary of $700,000 in the NHL and $70,000 in the AHL. The latter is an odd provision as if he was to clear waivers at some point, it’d be hard to imagine him agreeing to go to Laval for $70,000; he’d probably just request another contract termination.
Kovalchuk returned to the NHL in 2018, signing a three-year, $18.75 million deal with the Kings. However, things never seemed to really work out for him there. He got off to a good start last season but when John Stevens was let go and Willie Desjardins took over, his ice time and production plummeted quickly. Still, he wound up with 16 goals and 18 assists in 64 games which isn’t terrible.
The hope was that another coaching change (to Todd McLellan) would help get him going. That didn’t happen either. He played 17 games (where he had nine points but a -10 plus/minus rating) before being told in early November that he was welcome to practice with the team but would no longer play. That began the path to his departure from the team which was finalized once the rest of his signing bonus was paid out in mid-December; Kovalchuk subsequently cleared waivers and his deal was terminated. A return to the KHL was ruled out when the deadline for him to sign there came and went back on December 27th.
The potential is there for Kovalchuk to play an important role with the Habs. With Brendan Gallagher and Joel Armia both out, it’s likely that he’ll slot into their power play fairly quickly as a right-handed shot, something this team is really lacking up front. However, skating is not his strong suit and that’s going to be a challenge for him as Montreal plays a fast pace. That said, at the league minimum, the risk is minimal.
One thing worth noting is that the Habs are now up to 49 contracts out of the maximum of 50 after adding Kovalchuk plus two players yesterday while only moving out Mike Reilly. It’s not something that necessarily has to be addressed right away but it does limit their flexibility to try to add any more depth to cover for their injuries. Instead of other signings or waiver claims, they’ll have to make trades to that effect where they can send a contract out. That final contract could wind up being earmarked for Cole Caufield or Alexander Romanov depending on how the final few months of the season play out.
Kovalchuk is expected to join the team on Saturday and while he hasn’t played since November 9th (against Montreal), it’s possible that he could be available to play against the Penguins if he gets his work visa in place quickly enough.