Just over two weeks ago, we told you here that the Bruins were amongst a handful of teams that were interested in then-Los Angeles Kings winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who had just become an unrestricted free agent after being put on and clearing unconditional waivers. We also told you that another team interested in the most elite scorer of the 2000’s was the Montreal Canadiens. Just two weeks after the Bruins and other teams reportedly backed off, the Bruins arch-rivals signed the once prolific and now 36-year-old Russian sniper to a two-way contract Friday for the league minimum, which will pay him $700,000 in the NHL and $70,000 in the AHL.
Did Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney just pass up an inexpensive chance to solve his secondary scoring issues Kovalchuk, and essentially letting him fall into the laps of the Habs? The read here is an emphatic yes.
Nothing To Lose On Kovalchuk
By no means are the Canadiens (18-17-6, 42 points) a threat to catch the Bruins (24-7-11, 59 points) for the Atlantic Division crown or the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Already without the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron, the Habs lost their heart and soul and leading goal scorer, Brendan Gallagher to concussion this week. They are now six points out of third place in the Atlantic and eight points out of the final wild-card spot in the East. Even if Kovalchuk does help the Habs reach the playoffs for the first time in two seasons and only the second since 2015, that shouldn’t impact the Bruins unless they meet the Canadiens in the postseason.
No one will argue that Sweeney and Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin are in the same situations right now. Bergevin is desperate and trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the fourth time since becoming the Habs GM in 2012. Sweeney has led his team to three consecutive playoff appearances and Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Clearly Sweeney won’t lose his job for not signing Kovalchuk and that won’t be looked back on as the reason the Bruins couldn’t hoist the Cup again, should they fail to do so this spring. That being said, Bergevin deserves credit for something Sweeney wouldn’t do to solve an issue that’s plagued him since the ill-fated Ricks Nash trade at the 2018 NHL trade deadline. Even if Bergevin couldn’t land a bigger fish via trade to alleviate some of his scoring woes and injury woes, he got creative and jumped on a player that as he put it, “knows this is his last chance” and will be motivated to prove people wrong.
Kovalchuk’s five-on-five game has certainly declined but he’s also a player that by multiple scouting reports from NHL pro scouts, can still help an NHL power play. Those same scouts, some who played with and/or against Kovalchuk, have told Boston Hockey Now in the days since his release, that rumors of him being a prima donna or distraction in the dressing room were off-base. They had nothing but good things to say regarding the former captain of the Atlanta Thrashers and an alternate captain for both the New Jersey Devils and the Kings.
Kovalchuk Could’ve Fixed Shootout
The Bruins just lost another shootout this past Tuesday in a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils and are now 0-for-6 in the shootout entering their game with the Edmonton Oilers Saturday afternoon. From the 2010-11 season until he left following the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Kovalchuk went 15-for-25 in the shootout and in 2011-12, Kovalchuk helped the Devils go 12-4 in the shootout and scored an astonishing 11 times on 14 attempts. No one is arguing that he hasn’t likely lost some of his scoring touch, he’s still got the puck sense and likely won’t freeze up like the Bruins seem to do in the dreaded extra session.
Why Didn’t Sweeney Sign Kovalchuk?
The Bruins reportedly were contenders for Kovalchuk in the 2018 offseason before he signed a three-year, $18.25 million deal with the Los Angeles Kings in July 2018. They circled back on him to see if they could trade for him prior to the 2019 NHL trade deadline and again, as mentioned above were interested in Kovalchuk once he became a UFA last month. With Kovalchuk’s tenure in LA being a mitigated disaster that saw him amass just 16 goals and 18 assists in 64 games last season, and then just three goals and six assists in 17 games this season, no one can blame Sweeney for not trying to trade for Kovalchuk this season. Kovalchuk’s last game, ironically against the Habs in Montreal, was November 9 and he was a healthy scratch for every game after that until he was released. Giving up even a third or fourth rounder in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft that’s expected to be the deepest since one of the deepest, the 2003 Draft, would’ve been a mistake. Signing to the league minimum and a two-way deal, however, really had no risk, unless Sweeney either has something else up his sleeve with a trade.
As reported here in early November, the Bruins circled back on another Kings winger and prior trade target, Tyler Toffoli. Then, just prior to Kovalchuk’s release, we speculated here, since the two teams were suddenly scouting each other more often, whether the Bruins were eyeing Anaheim Ducks winger Rickard Rakell? There has been no chatter since Christmas that any potential trade talks the Bruins had with the Ducks or Kings have increased but we do know that Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has been scouting the Bruins over the last few weeks. Only time will tell if those trade scenarios or others were the reason Sweeney wouldn’t at least take a chance on Kovalchuk with hardly anything to lose.
Sweeney may also now be convinced that the likes of top AHL prospects such as Zach Senyshyn or Jack Studnicka can come up from Providence and handle the rigors of the dog days of the season, a stretch run and hopefully a long playoff run, just as good, if not better than the older Kovalchuk. Whatever the case, Sweeney, the Bruins, and their fans better hope that if he doesn’t land that marlin he’s been looking for to solve those scoring woes, he doesn’t regret not taking a chance on a smaller and less elusive fish, otherwise he’ll be like Santiago in Old Man and The Sea and left with nothing but a carcass at some point in the playoffs.