Alex Kovalev has seen his production drop this season, scoring 38 points in 54 games. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bob Gainey has shown some pretty serious gumption around the trade deadline the past few years. Increasingly, though, the question for the Montreal Canadiens GM this season is, in which direction should he be applying force?
There are a lot of things that come into play when evaluating the state of the Habs right now. It’s easy to pick on a team that’s lost eight of its past 10 games, but even before this recent rough patch, Montreal hasn’t consistently looked like the Eastern Conference contender many thought it would be. Entering Wednesday night’s game versus the Edmonton Oilers, the Canadiens had just a five-point cushion between themselves and ninth place Carolina.
The Habs are one 6-2 loss into a six-game road trip and play nine of their next 12 away from home. There’s a very good chance they’ll be fighting tooth and nail simply to make the playoffs by the time the March 4 deadline rolls around.
And just to infuse more flux into their state, the Habs have just four forwards – both Kostitsyn brothers, Maxim Lapierre and Georges Laraque – signed beyond this season.
All this must have Gainey wondering what he could fetch for Alex Kovalev. Trading its most skilled player is not typically the tact taken by teams that believe they can compete in the playoffs. Then again, Gainey doesn’t always adhere to conventional wisdom this time of year.
Last season, he traded his No. 1 goalie, Cristobal Huet, to Washington with his team in the thick of a battle for the East’s No. 1 seed. That occurred two years after Gainey moved Jose Theodore – whom many still considered a starter at that point – to Colorado leading up to the deadline. In 2007, Gainey shipped out longtime Habs defenseman Craig Rivet to San Jose. In all three instances Gainey didn’t let the fact the Canadiens were either in a playoff spot, or seriously battling for one, deter him from making a move he felt benefited the team long term.
The truth is, dealing Kovalev – who, along with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay, can become a UFA on July 1 – isn’t even an exercise in towel-throwing. The Russian’s mercurial nature has got the collective mercury of Habs fans and management rising once again. After an 84-point season last year, Kovalev might not hit 60 this year.
Are his infrequent awe-inspiring moves really enough to justify keeping him around? Is there any reason for Montreal to hitch its wagon to a guy, who’ll soon be 36, beyond this season?
I don’t think the Canadiens’ current struggles mean they need to become all-out sellers. In fact, I think Gainey should be steadfast in his pursuit of impact players who are under contract beyond this season, be it Vincent Lecavalier, Chris Pronger or even Tomas Kaberle. Montreal still has a good – albeit underachieving – core that would only improve with the addition of an impact player. It also has a deep well of prospects from which to deal.
But if Gainey does have to deplete his prospect pool to land a big fish, he could simultaneously do a little replenishing by shipping Kovalev out. And don’t kid yourself; for all the head-shaking Kovalev’s play has induced over the years, there’d be a lot of head-nodding from GMs out there indicating, ‘Yes, Bob, I am interested in adding this unique talent to my playoff team.’
Kovalev is a go-to guy in Montreal and that’s a problem. He needs to be a guy you get to on your second line, after your top unit has inflicted its damage. Imagine Kovalev coming over the boards in San Jose on the heels of a big shift from the Thornton-Marleau-Setoguchi line. It’s in the shadows of a secondary role where he can do the most damage.
Moving Kovalev out of Montreal might seem contradictory for a team still in a position to open the post-season on home ice, but it would bring some closure to a volatile situation. Right now, the Canadiens’ hopes are too tied to a player who frequently disappoints and disappears.
Could Kovalev thrive in a reduced role with the bleu, blanc et rouge if they brought in a true front-line forward? It’s certainly possible, but I’m of the belief that even with a big deadline addition, the Canadiens haven’t turned the corner to the point that they’re ready to win a championship.
Montreal arrived ahead of schedule last year, but the truth is its young nucleus needs more time to develop. Kovalev is not going to be part of the picture when this team really starts to hit its stride in two or three years.
Why not parlay him into a couple youthful assets who can help take the edge off the haul of youngsters it’s going to take to acquire a legitimate championship pillar?
Given Gainey’s track record, it’s a plausible path.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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