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For fans of the Montreal Canadiens, the acquisition of Alexei Kovalev for the stretch drive to the playoffs and beyond is reward enough for years of painful hockey.  Lost in the equation though, at least in the short-term, is young winger Josef Balej, the principle going to the Rangers in the deal.  What follows then is a brief analysis of the transaction.


In Kovalev, the Habs picked up a world class offensive talent – when he wants to be.  In the past, particularly with the Penguins, he’s put up some gaudy numbers and has dominated games.  Recently however, while playing with the Rangers, his play has dipped fairly considerably. There’s no denying his talent, however his work ethic and desire are two question marks that need to be addressed in the coming weeks. 


Also of note, particularly at this juncture in the NHL’s history – what with the impending doom surrounding the outgoing and future CBA’s – and in fact critical to this deal is the fact that Kovalev becomes an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.  Depending on what comes to pass in negotiations between the league and the players union, the Habs will have the option of whether or not to make an offer to sign the enigmatic Russian, or alternately of letting him walk and putting their money to better use.


Of course, this is also the sticking point for many fans.  That Kovalev was acquired as a rental and that such a high price was paid is a tough pill to swallow, particularly since Balej was leading the Canadiens AHL affiliate in scoring.  That the going rate for a player of Kovalev’s calibre is ostensibly a prospect and a pick is of little consequence to those who were delighted at watching the youth of the Habs maturing and getting ready for NHL action.


What the Habs gave up in Balej was an ultra-quick winger who has significant flair and plenty of offensive upside.  He’s a smaller player, however, and as such probably less intriguing to Gainey and his vision of the future of the club.  Add to that the two youngsters in the system Andrei Kastitsyn and Alex Perezhogin, and the fact that they both were considered higher in the depth chart than was Balej, and the move becomes a little easier to take.


Will Balej become a steady NHLer, perhaps with the ability to score goals and win games?  While the question certainly can’t be answered definitively, some tentative predictions can probably be made.  He will be a regular at the highest level at some point: he has virtually all the requisite attributes necessary to succeed.  There’s a large possibility that he’ll be a top-six forward and will score at least 15 goals in a season, but other than that, it’s hard to judge where he’s going to be in a couple of years.


The end result, therefore, with the two tangible assets in the deal says the Canadiens dealt a lot of potential for the ability to improve significantly on the short-term with an eye to playoff hockey.  Pierre Boivin indicated that the Habs needed to get to the third round to break even financially this season; presumably this deal went some way to approaching that goal.  Since Balej was lower in the depth chart, it seems a less painful trade in terms of the future of the Canadiens as, presumably, Balej was going to be the odd man out in the future anyhow.  Certainly, Balej’s value was at a peak at this point.


Could he have lured something better than Kovalev the UFA?  Perhaps, but since the team is performing so well at this point, Gainey made the decision to pat the club on the head and reward them for their efforts.  As a business decision, it’s a sound one as well, as the Habs end up having less payroll come the dawn of the new CBA.  Add to that the fact that they’ll be able to at least attempt to resign the Russian if finances allow, and the deal looks better all the time.


There are, of course, two other matter involved with the deal that have to be considered:  the draft picks involved.  The Habs sent the Rangers a second rounder in addition to Balej, and the addition, at first glance, makes it difficult to accept.  Consider, though, that if Kovalev leaves, the Habs will gain a compensatory pick in the ’05 draft at the beginning of the second round, and suddenly the loss of this year’s selection seems much less important – particularly considering that this year is supposed to be a weaker draft.  If the Canadiens actually sign Kovalev, then the Habs come out big winners, losing out on the compensatory pick, but gaining an elite player for a prospect and pick. 


As to signing Kovalev, there will have to be a few things considered first.  Of course, the impending CBA is one, as is his play down the stretch and into the playoffs.  However, should he decide to resign with the Canadiens, in all likelihood he won’t cost nearly as much as his present contract would indicate.  His numbers in no way merit the $6.6 million bonanza he rakes in.  If they make a bid, look for the Habs to bandy about a number more in the $4-4.5 range.  (There’s probably little chance of him making much more post-CBA on any club.)


It is, therefore, this writer’s conclusion that the deal made was a strong one by Gainey.  Despite the fact they are giving up some good potential, the possible gains they make in return, both in the short and potential long-terms, seem worth the risk.  Certainly, if the Habs make that coveted third round, it will be all smiles amongst the Canadiens brass as they count their winnings on and off the ice.