Canadiens sign free-agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk to one-year contract

The Canadian Press

BROSSARD, Que. — Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin sold the acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk on Friday as a low-risk move designed to offset several injuries to the club's forward group.

The struggling NHL club agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the 36-year-old free-agent forward — a digestible two-way deal that is worth US$700,000 at the NHL level and $70,000 in the AHL.

Kovalchuk, 36, had nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) and 12 penalty minutes over 17 games this season with the Los Angeles Kings, who placed him on waivers last month. His last game was on Nov. 9, coincidentally against his new hockey club at the Bell Centre.

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"He know it's his last chance," Bergevin told reporters at the club's suburban practice facility.

The general manager said he did his due diligence on the NHL's first overall pick from 2001 — current Canadiens forward Nate Thompson played with Kovalchuk in Los Angeles while the club's assistant general manager Scott Mellanby did so in Atlanta, which used the top selection on Kovalchuk.

"I've never heard anything bad about Kovy, he's a hard worker, he's a good person," Bergevin said.

Thompson played in Los Angeles with Kovalchuk for two-thirds of last season.

"He's a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, he really loves the game," Thompson said. "That's why he works so hard, he wants to do well, he wants to compete, he wants to get better, so I think it'll be good, it'll be good for us. I think it'll be good for the young guys to see that, he's going to bring some good enthusiasm to our team."

It will be up to Kovalchuk to buy into the system employed by the Canadiens and head coach Claude Julien.

"We have nothing to lose, we'll see, where he's at, where his game is at," Bergevin said. "It's going to be up to him."

Kovalchuk is expected to join the NHL club as soon as the team irons out visa issues.

He has 859 points (436-423) in 897 career regular-season NHL games with the Kings, Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils. The Russian also recorded 327 points (138-189) in 298 career KHL games with SKA St. Petersburg.

With Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron and Joel Armia all injured, Kovalchuk will help bridge the gap to their return.

Going into Friday's action, the Habs were six points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for third in the Atlantic, and seven points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the last wild card spot in the East.

While he thinks they'd be closer to a playoff spot with the wounded in the lineup, Bergevin doesn't believe his club is out of it yet.

"I don't think we're out of the race, but we want to hang in there until our week off (Jan. 19-25), until the injured come back," Bergevin said. 

The Kovalchuk acquisition is the type of move that suits Bergevin — improving the team without hurting long-term prospects or spending assets.

"We'd like to make the playoffs, but I will not sacrifice our kids for a short-term fix," Bergevin said. "I need to be responsible for the organization in the long-term, I won't veer from that and I want to be clear on that."

He said the team will reassess after the Canadiens get their injured players back and see where they're at closer to the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 24.

The Kovalchuk signing capped a busy 24 hours that saw the Canadiens also add defenceman Marco Scandella to the mix from the Buffalo Sabres while shipping out blue-liner Mike Reilly to the rival Ottawa Senators.

Scandella, a Montreal native, drove six hours from Buffalo and was on the ice for practice Friday.

"Just happy to be home, happy to be part of this team, it's been my dream come true to play here," Scandella said. "To be lucky enough to play for this organization, wear that jersey, not a lot of people get to do that."

The veteran defenceman has three goals and six assists in 31 games with the Sabres this season and 133 points (41 goals, 92 assists) over 549 career games with Minnesota and Buffalo.

Scandella, 29, was paired with rookie Cale Fleury and said he's hoping to inject some positivity and a strong defensive effort into what is a fast, young squad.

The Canadiens host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2020.

Alexis Belanger-Champagne, The Canadian Press

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