Last week, Marc Bergevin made some tweaks to his roster with the acquisitions of Marco Scandella and Ilya Kovalchuk. Having had some time to ponder both moves, our writers offer up their thoughts on the pickups.
Terry Costaris: I like the acquisitions of Scandella and Kovalchuk. Bergevin is once again taking a conservative low risk, high reward approach here. This was an attempt to patch some holes in his sinking ship with the hope that both players will help get the Canadiens ashore to the “anything can happen” playoffs. And you know what, given the incredible parity in this league, anything truly is possible. Very few teams are dominating and most are a few key injuries away from a calamity.
This has been a brutal season in terms of key injuries for the Canadiens. I wonder how much better this team would have been had the promising Noah Juulsen not suffered his debilitating (and poorly reported) injury?
Scandella fills in Juulsen’s spot in terms of where his development would likely have been at this point. Who knows, this veteran defenceman may find a new lease on life playing for the team that he adored as a kid. If he does, Bergevin has snagged yet another quality player via trade.
Kovalchuk will help the power play but his defensive game concerns me. Regardless, his salary is peanuts and Montreal’s risk in signing him is minimal. He clearly wants to finish his career on a high note. He appears to be on a final mission of sorts. Who knows, maybe on sheer will, this former superstar may squeeze out every last drop left in his last hurrah tank.
It’s highly unlikely that Bergevin will make a blockbuster trade involving key young assets or first and second-round draft picks. It would be irresponsible to do so after all the suffering that Hab fans have endured these last few years. At the same time, I’m sure that a few more low-risk deals will be made in the next few weeks.
If the losing continues though, the GM should move some of his veterans for more prospects and draft picks which will at least keep Montreal’s fan base buying into “the future is bright” narrative.
A revived Kovalchuk, for example, could fetch some valued return from a contending team. This too then makes his signing yet another potential bonus for the Habs.
Calvin Harmsworth: Although the moves made last week were not exactly blockbusters, they were still good deals that I believe can provide some immediate help for the Canadiens. For starters, Kovalchuk is not a top NHL talent like he once was, but he can still be a useful player for the time being. He can provide some much-needed finishing ability, at least until top forwards like Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, and Jonathan Drouin are back. On the power play, Kovalchuk has a shot that other teams should focus on, which could result in more openings for Weber’s one-timer. Also, there is almost zero risk in this deal. He is only making $700,000 in the NHL or $70,000 in the AHL, so even if he cannot keep up, it will not hurt the Habs’ salary cap.
I also liked the addition of Scandella. Two years ago, this was a player that Bergevin was ready to trade a first-round pick for. However, with Ryan Poehling on the board at the time, the trade never came to fruition. A couple of years later, Scandella is definitely not a top-pairing defenceman but he can fill in a spot on the bottom two pairings. I believe that he is an upgrade on Mike Reilly and Brett Kulak, and he should look good next to Cale Fleury or Jeff Petry. It is also worth considering how much he loves Montreal and the Canadiens. In his first interview, he could hardly contain how excited and proud he was to be playing for his childhood team. Once again, neither of these moves will turn the Habs into the best team in the league. However, it just might be enough to keep them afloat until some key players come back. Once healthy, I do believe this team can secure a playoff spot; it is just a matter of surviving the tough times and staying within striking distance.
Brian La Rose: From a value perspective, getting Scandella for a fourth-round pick is a decent move (especially after flipping Reilly for a fifth-rounder). That said, I’m not sure he moves the needle all that much. Yes, he’s an upgrade but him playing 16-18 minutes a night over Kulak or someone else playing 14-16 a night isn’t going to drastically change the fortunes of this team. They’re better defensively from this trade though and given how bad they’ve been in that regard, that has to count for something.
I wouldn’t be thinking about a contract extension just yet though. They already have three other lefties signed or under team control in restricted free agency for next season and if Alexander Romanov does sign, that’s four. Even if there is room for another one, the depth role would require a larger pay cut than Scandella would probably want to accept. It’s possible he likes playing at home so much that he wants to stick around but some other moves would need to be made for that to have a chance at happening.
As for Kovalchuk, I thought they might turn to him as the injuries piled up. I don’t know if he lasts the season (the two-way provision stands out as a quick and easy path towards an eventual contract termination) but even if he’s only around for a month until some players return (and no one else gets hurt between now and then), he should be competent enough to hold his own at the very least. There’s some excitement given his history but at this point, this is another Ales Hemsky situation. It just happened midseason instead of mid-summer.
Kevin Leveille: When it comes to Kovalchuk, there are only three ways this goes down. Kovalchuk does not produce with the Habs, he is released and his days of playing in the NHL are over. He does produce and the Habs stay in the playoff picture as they get healthy and this looks like a brilliant move for the power play. Kovalchuk produces and the Habs still remain far away from playoffs so teams will be offering Bergevin picks for the player who will be just about free by the trade deadline. No risk and two of the three scenarios improve the team.
As for Scandella, this is a player have been after for a while according to rumours. It was interesting to see him paired with Fleury to start. Scandella is another player that could get moved by the deadline if Montreal continues to drop in the standings. He is also a player the Habs might choose to re-sign too. All of a sudden, the Habs blue line has size other than Victor Mete. Thinking out loud, I wonder if they’ve started with this pairing because Petry might be moved if Habs can’t get back in the playoff picture.
Paul MacLeod: The season is swirling around the bowl, about to be flushed out with yet another season of no playoffs. Marc Bergevin’s response: trade a defenceman that has lost the coach’s trust and earned a ticket out of town acquire a 5-6 defenceman and take a flyer on a 36-year-old former All Star looking for redemption. It screams window dressing and PR.
Yet, paradoxically, I like both moves. Everyone who has looked at this team has noted that it lacks finishing talent at full strength. With four of the top nine forwards out it has almost none. My point? Trading young assets to improve the situation for this season would be pointless. Therefore, this was a low-cost shakeup that provided the possibility of improvement and some help for the team to stay afloat until the injured return. I don’t think it will help the Canadiens make the playoffs, but at least Bergevin acquired some potential help.
The Scandella trade is a clear win for Montreal. He is a big, physical defenceman who should at the very least solidify the bottom pair. A fourth-round pick is a reasonable cost. There has been a lot of discussion about the Canadiens trading Scandella at the deadline if Montreal is out of the playoffs–which is looking more and more certain with every passing loss. I am of the contrarian opinion that when you get a player like Scandella who wants to play in Montreal and he is doing well for you, you keep him. What I would be in favor of, is a deal similar to Tomas Plekanec where he is traded at the deadline with the intention/agreement that he will be re-signed in July.
The Kovalchuk deal could be a win for Montreal. If the stars align it could be the biggest win of this wretched season, although that is highly unlikely. The Kovalchuk contract could also be a nothing deal for Montreal. There are three scenarios:
1. Kovalchuk does nothing for Montreal and he is out of the NHL next season;
2. Kovalchuk does very well and Montreal makes the playoffs;
3. Kovalchuk does very well. Montreal does not make the playoffs and Kovalchuk is traded at the deadline for a pick or a middling prospect.
Since Montreal gave up nothing to acquire this player and is paying him the NHL equivalent of beer money, scenario one does not hurt the club and scenarios two and three are clear wins.
In short, I give Bergevin a winning grade on the trade with the Kovalchuk signing grade to be determined. I just wish that Bergevin could have acquired a Scandella-type player and a better backup goalie four months ago.
Norm Szcyrek: The old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. This could not be truer for Marc Bergevin and the Canadiens. With the recent injury of Gallagher, the Canadiens are now down four regular wingers. Is the signing of Kovalchuk the answer?
If this signing had taken place in the summer of 2018 I would have been more optimistic. However, Kovalchuk flamed out in a huge way in Los Angeles after about one and a quarter seasons into that contract. If he was not motivated to play well enough to meet the expectations of the $6.25 million three-year contract he signed, then I am not encouraged by the Habs signing him to a league minimum two-way contract. Although the monetary risk is low, I expect the return will also be low.
Now that he is a Hab, what line could Ilya possibly excel at? I don’t believe he’s an ideal fit on the first line with Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar since he’s not good with the defensive side of the game. The second line with Max Domi has been playing well lately so it’s not likely to be broken up. That means he will end up on the third or fourth lines. Will his ego accept that type of assignment? I do think there’s a small chance he could help the team on the power play, even though he did not help the Kings in that role.
The trade for Scandella is one I believe will help the Habs. Marco is a hometown guy who is very excited to play in Montreal. He is an experienced defender who can contribute a little offensively and is a low maintenance player. I think he will fit in quite well for the Canadiens and if everything goes well perhaps he will be offered a contract renewal.
Dave Woodward: The addition of Kovalchuk and Scandella was widely reported as an indication that Bergevin has not given up on the season…yet. Kovalchuk, as a former elite goal scorer with impressive career numbers, has generated more stories and interest. However, it is the acquisition of Scandella that will have a greater impact on the team in the short term and perhaps even in the long term if the Montrealer signs with the Canadiens when his contract is up this summer. Scandella has a reasonable chance of signing in Montreal after this season. He is from Montreal and is the nephew of Sergio Momesso, the former Hab that won a Cup with the Canadiens in 1986 and who is currently the team’s TSN Radio colour commentator. He was also thrilled with the trade by all reports.
Scandella’s age (29 vs. 36 for Kovalchuk) and position also make his acquisition more important for the Canadiens. While the Canadiens continue to have many holes to fill before they can realistically contend, the most significant deficiency in the Canadiens lineup is the left side of their defence corps. How did the Canadiens end up with such a glaring weakness? It all arose from Bergevin’s 2017 offseason, the summer of all knowledgeable Habs’ fans discontent. While a full review of Bergevin’s “epic” 2017 offseason decisions is beyond the scope of this missive, the loss of the Canadiens’ entire left side occurred that summer. That offseason, Bergevin lost or traded all three of the incumbent left-handed defenceman (Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu, and most importantly, Andrei Markov). To make matters even worse, Bergevin traded away the Habs’ top prospect at the time, left-handed defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, for the inconsistent Jonathan Drouin. As for the replacements (Karl Alzner and David Schlemko), enough said.
Since the 2017 offseason, Bergevin has been scrambling to assemble an NHL calibre left side, largely without success. Prior to the Scandella trade, the Canadiens had two fairly consistent NHL-calibre left-handed defenceman (Mete and Ben Chariot). This past year the Canadiens have tried to use the now-departed Reilly, Brett Kulak, Gustav Olofsson, and Otto Leskinen as the third option on the left side. All of them have struggled at various times. The Canadiens, even when healthy, have not had three consistent NHL-calibre left-handed defenders all season up until now. As for the playoffs, the Scandella deal is most likely too late to make a difference this year but Scandella will likely have a positive impact on the lineup going forward because he addresses such a glaring weakness. The Canadiens still do not have a puck-moving first-pairing left-handed defenceman to play with Shea Weber. However, with the addition of Scandella, they at least have three left-handed defencemen that will perform reasonably and consistently at the NHL level.
Despite Kovalchuk’s past success, I expect his signing is merely a low to no risk stop-gap measure designed to plug a hole until the Canadiens injured top nine forwards (Gallagher, Byron, Drouin, and Armia) return. The Canadiens will be out of the playoffs by the time these players return in late January unless they post a winning record in the interim. Without some help up front, wins cannot be expected with their current roster of forwards. Enter the last stand of Ilya Kovalchuk.
One would expect Kovalchuk to be used on the power play as his one-timer with the man advantage was one of the league’s best in his prime. It is less clear how he will contribute five-on-five. Even in Kovalchuk’s heyday, he was not considered a speedster so it remains to be seen how Kovalchuk will fit into a lineup that relies on speed and quickness. If Kovalchuk does not perform well or the Canadiens are out of playoff contention fairly early, I expect Kovalchuk will be waived and then released (that may occur even if he performs well once the injured forwards return). Certainly, if the Habs have reached the point where the playoffs are not attainable, there would be no point keeping a 36-year old veteran around when so many young players could benefit from that ice time. Unfortunately, the acquisition of Kovalchuk is almost two decades too late and will most likely have no impact on the Canadiens except perhaps in the very short term.