Hextall on Hockey: the NHL’s top deadline trade bait?

Montreal Canadiens' Ilya Kovalchuk moves in on Calgary Flames goaltender David Rittich during first-period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

A month ago, Ilya Kovalchuk was waived by the L.A. Kings and now he’s a point-per-game player for the Montreal Canadiens.

How does that happen?

Let’s start with this: Kovalchuk is getting an opportunity to play. The winger is right-handed on a Canadiens team that has limited righties. This allows the 36-year-old winger to receive top-line minutes and power-play time.

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In L.A., Kovalchuk was behind a lot of players and didn’t receive those minutes.

Let’s remember, Kovalchuk has skill. From 2001-2013, no active NHL player scored more goals than his 417. He had two 50-plus-goal seasons and surpassed the 40-goal mark in six consecutive years.

A former first-overall selection of the Atlanta Thrashers, he led the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup final in 2012, losing the Kings before retiring after 11 seasons to go back home to Russia to be close to family.

READ MORE: Hextall on Hockey — Winnipeg Jets facing a harsh reality

Kovalchuk was a star. Yes, since he returned to the NHL in 2018 his foot speed has faded. But in Montreal, the team’s overall speed hides that blemish.

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He is an experienced player on a young team, but most of all, Kovalchuk is motivated.

He knows this is his last chance to show the NHL he can still compete in this league, a league he returned to to do one thing – win a Stanley Cup.

That’s why Kovalchuk signed as a free agent with Montreal at the league minimum salary of US$700,000, making him a desirable and affordable trade deadline rental for a contender.

Which means his dream of a Stanley Cup may just come true.

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