Friday, January 3, 2020

Ilya Kovalchuk Jersey Card

For anyone who doesn't want to read a long analysis/tirade, the gist of it is this: after having his contract terminated by the Los Angeles Kings on December 15th, Ilya Kovalchuk signed a league-minimum two-way deal with the Montréal Canadiens for the remainder of this season.

Here's the thing: The Habs are desperate for offense. They are currently without point-per-game winger Jonathan Drouin, 30-goal scorer Brendan Gallagher, career-year right winger Joel Armia, 20-goal scorer Paul Byron and young mid-lineup guy Matthew Peca - all out with injuries. Max Domi's game isn't what it what in his career year last season. And the team is coached by Claude Julien, who historically coaches with the objective that a lucky bounce will net his team a 1-0 win because he does not understand creating offense.

Spoiler alert: Kovalchuk isn't the 50-goal player he was in his prime, nor the KHL points leader from a couple of seasons ago. He's slowed down a bit, but he still has that Alex Ovechkin-esque shot. He's a powerplay and shootout specialist.

Which brings me to this observation: Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has a gambling problem. He's a functioning gambler in the same way that functioning alcoholics can still do what's asked of them and keep their jobs, because he's more afraid to spend than he is to take bets, but most of his moves have been long shots that are destined to fail, and he can't stop himself from making a ton of them:

His first two trades were one-for-one prospect swaps, a gamble in and of itself, but nothing major. His third deal was his first involving NHLers, and he sent appreciated veteran and current 30-goal scorer Erik Cole to the Dallas Stars for an over-the-hill former Canadien in Michael Ryder, a guy who in his prime could score 30 but was a negative in every other aspect of the game. Ryder played 27 games in his second stint in Montréal, had a surprising 21 points and was a -2. He retired after playing with the New Jersey Devils for two seasons. This counts as a salary dump as well as a "net loss".

He then acquired Davis Drewiskie from the Kings for a fifth-rounder. He hoped Drewiskie would be a third-pairing defender. The draft pick (Patrik Bartosak) never played for the Kings, Drewiskie played his final 9 NHL games for the Habs (producing a decent 1 goal, 2 assists and 3 points) before finishing his career in the AHL. That kind of works as a win, but it's a missed home run. If you're doing the math, that's one win, one loss and three failed gambles.

July 2013 brought actual hockey deals, starting with a swap of seventh-round picks (tie) and a trade of draft pick busts (Christian Thomas for Danny Kristo) - another failed gamble. He then managed to grab pugilist George Parros from the Florida Panthers for their own seventh-rounder from days earlier and a prospect who didn't pan out (Philippe Lefebvre).

At the 2013-14 trade deadline, he made a flurry of moves trying to get his team to the playoffs:
- He got veteran grinder Dale Weise for quick-skating young Swiss defenseman Yannick Weber. Win.
- He swapped unsigned rookies (Robert Czarnik for Steve Quailer) with the Kings. Failed gamble.
- He traded a fifth-round pick for veteran depth forward Mike Weaver in his fourth trade with the Panthers. Does he only have two GMs' phone numbers handy?
- He landed disgruntled free agent-to-be Thomas Vanek (and a fifth-rounder) for a prized prospect (Sebastian Collberg) and a second-rounder - his first true gamble win. Vanek had a good run to help the team make the playoffs then disappeared in the postseason and became a reason why the team didn't advance further.
- He acquired a spiralling Devan Dubnyk from the Nashville Predators as insurance as a third-stringer. Dubnyk would revive his career with the Arizona Coyotes the following season - they won their gamble, Bergevin lost his.
At the 2014 draft, he traded his third-rounder and a fourth for the Coyotes' third-rounder. None of them had a lasting impact in the NHL. Failed gamble.

In preparing for the free agent season, he then sent disgruntled forward Daniel Brière to the Colorado Avalanche for Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau and a fifth-rounder, a pure "hockey trade" that ended up even. After failing to sign anyone on the market, he sent veteran defenseman Josh Gorges to the Buffalo Sabres for a second-rounder who has yet to play in the NHL and is now in the Chicago Blackhawks organization, Chad Krys. Gorges played in Buffalo for four seasons. This one's a loss.

At the beginning of the 2014-15 season, to not lose goalie Peter Budaj in the waiver wire, he was sent to the Winnipeg Jets with fading prospect Patrick Holland for former prospect and AHLer Eric Tangradi. Pure loss, and failed gamble.

In early November, oft-injured hard worker Travis Moen was sent to the Stars for a fading Sergei Gonchar, who played his final 45 NHL games with the Habs. That's a win. Two weeks later, overpaid bottom-six forward Rene Bourque was sent to the Anaheim Ducks for overpaid third-pairing defenseman Bryan Allen, a tie even though Allen played only 5 games with the Canadiens and Bourque played for three more NHL seasons plus one year in Sweden. Addition by subtraction.

The trade deadline brought forth another avalanche of moves:
- Then-prized prospect Jiri Sekac was sent to Anaheim for Devante Smith-Pelly. Gamble loss: GSP brought too many problems along with his uneven game.
- He acquired the final couple of months of Jeff Petry's contract from the Edmonton Oilers for a second- and a fourth-rounder. Not only did Petry re-sign, but he's been a cornerstone of the Habs' defense ever since. Clear win.
- He also got fourth-liner Brian Flynn from the Sabres for another fifth-rounder. Win.
- Minutes later, same team, same kind of deal: he acquired Montrealer and fourth-liner Torrey Mitchell from Buffalo for a minor-leaguer and a seventh-rounder. Win.
Come July 1st, he sent beloved grinder Brandon Prust to the Canucks for Zack Kassian's alcoholism. Kassian a former Sabres first-round pick, never played a single game in Montréal, getting into a drunken car crash prior to training camp instead. Huge gamble, huge loss.

Remember Christian Thomas? He was sent back to Arizona during the Holiday period, for 12 games of a young Lucas Lessio, who now plies his trade in Germany after a few years in the KHL. Gamble and loss. Around that same time, Kassian was also sent packing - to the Oilers, for minor-league goalie Ben Scrivens. Don't get me wrong, he had to go, but he's now playing on Edmonton's top line with Connor McDavid. Another loss.

Two weeks after that, goalie Dustin Tokarski - the prospect acquired in Bergevin's second-ever trade - was sent to the Ducks for 23-year-old Max Friberg, who never played in Montréal and has been in Sweden for three years. This could either be a "gamble-and-loss" or "we're giving Tokarski away so he can play". Let's go with #2 and call it even.

A week later, Bergevin pulls a thee-team trade that lands him enforcer John Scott (from the Coyotes, for prospects Stefan Fournier and Jarred Tinordi) and Victor Bartley from the Preds (for the Coyotes' Stefan Elliott). He then refuses to let Scott play, creating a whole mess because Scott's named (sarcastically, via fan vote) to the All-Star Game, eventually being named MVP of the event. For some reason, Bartley suited up in 9 games with the Habs. Elliott is currently the only player in the list who has a shot of ever playing in the NHL again, having appeared in three games with the Ottawa Senators just last season, at 27 years of age. This is a loss, for sure, I'm not sure it's a gamble, though.

In late February, in a trade deadline move, Bergevin made his best very trade, acquiring centre Phillip Danault AND A SECOND-ROUNDER (Russian super prospect Alexander Romanov) for depth forwards Weise and Tomas Fleischmann (a free agent gamble of his own) as the Chicago Blackhawks made a push for a fourth Stanley Cup with their current core. Falling under the radar was the trade that sent Smith-Pelly to the Devils for Stefan Matteau.

The June 2016 draft was a busy time for GMMB, as he sent Lars Eller to the Washington Capitals for two second-round picks who have yet to develop and grabbed Andrew Shaw from the Hawks for two second-rounders including Alex DeBrincat. Ironically, I would have considered an Eller-for-Shaw trade equal, perhaps even slightly advantageous to the Habs; however, with the players selected in the draft, this becomes two losses for Montréal. The team also swapped second-rounders again, this time with the Jets.

Then the seismic trade happened. This could be Shea Weber's final season where his positives outweigh the negatives. He traded a thriving Norris Trophy winner and three-time nominee in P.K. Subban to get him. Of course, Subban hasn't really been the same since the trade, but that's because he's always only wanted to play in Montréal. He's lost. Meanwhile, Weber's under contract until he turns 42.

At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Bergevin traded prospect Tim Bozon to the Panthers for Jonathan Racine, whom he sent - along with a sixth-round pick - to the Tampa Bay Lightning three months later for Nikita Nesterov, who would play all of 13 games with the Habs before leaving for the KHL... but not before essentially calling head coach Julien a racist and biased against Russians. Considering five of them didn't make it back to the team the following season (first-line forward Alexander Radulov, top-pairing defenseman Andrei Markov, top prospect Mikhail Sergachev, hard-hitting defenseman Alexei Emelin and Nesterov) and that another one didn't make it to the Holidays the following year (Nikita Scherbak), he probably had a point. That's one lost gamble and one loss, and it was the first instance of Julien rebelling against his boss' player selection.

Bergevin, trying to please his new bench boss, made another torrent of moves at the trade deadline, trying to build Julien a heavy team to work with instead of one built on speed and skill:
- First came a prospect gamble, acquiring Keegan Lowe from the Carolina Hurricanes for Philip Samuelsson.
- Then came a net win, acquiring #6-7 D-man Jordie Benn for stagnating prospect Greg Pateryn.
- There was a gamble-and-loss in giving David Desharnais away to the Oilers for Brandon Davidson, who never became the bottom-pairing defenseman it was hoped he would turn into.
- Former pest Steve Ott was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for a sixth-rounder. Loss.
- Fourth-line grinder Dwight King was acquired from the Kings for a fourth-rounder. Loss.
- Grinder Andreas Martinsens was acquired from the Avs for young prospect Sven Andrighetto, who was a solid second-liner on that team for over two seasons. Loss.
After failing to make the playoffs once more, Bergevin pulled the trigger on the trade that brought Drouin (and a sixth-rounder) to Montréal for Sergachev (and a second-rounder). He got rid of a Russian for Julien - one who could win a Norris Trophy some day - for a Quebecer, whom Julien isn't much more fond of. It's too early to tell who will actually win that one, but for the second straight season, my opinion is that the GM went for exactly the right player but overpaid to get him - and should have held onto the piece he gave away.

Later that summer, he sent Nathan Beaulieu to Buffalo for a third-rounder (loss) in a move to shield himself from losing him to the expansion draft, sent the Kings a fifth-rounder for David Schlemko (even) to compensate, and once again swapped seventh-rounders, this time with the Philadelphia Flyers (this one looks like a home run, because it netted him goalie Cayden Primeau).

At the beginning of the 2017-18 season, Bergevin pulled the trigger on a bunch of other small moves, sending Zach Redmond to Buffalo for local kid Nicolas Deslauriers (win), sending Martinsons to Chicago for failed prospect Kyle Baun (gamble loss), Mitchell to the Kings (because youcan't have too many local guys on your team) for a fourth-rounder (even) and grabbing veteran depth guy Adam Cracknell from the New York Rangers for Holland (even).

After New Year's, backup goalie Al Montoya was sent to the Oilers for a fourth-rounder (even), and at the trade deadline, defenseman Jakub Jeřábek went to Washington for a fifth-rounder (loss), veteran Tomas Plekanec and Baun made their way to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a playoff run in exchange for Kerby Rychel, Rinat Valiev and a second-rounder (gamble fail), Joe Morrow was sent to the Jets for a fourth-rounder (even), and what should have been a steal sent the Minnesota Wild a fifth-rounder for potential powerplay quarterback Mike Reilly (gamble fail).

The summer of 2018 was once again shock-full of roster moves:
- Bergevin's very first first-round pick, Alex Galchenyuk, was sent to the Coyotes for their own struggling former first-rounder, Max Domi. Habs win this on following production, age and salary on the following two seasons.
- The Oilers grabbed Hayden Hawkey - a quality NCAA goalie - for a fifth-rounder. This one's even for now.
- At the draft, the Habs and Calgary Flames swap... fourth-rounders. They also exchange fifth-rounder with the Hawks, seventh-rounders with the Flyers, and add picks with trades with Edmonton (receiving a third and a fifth for a second, a net loss in quality) and San Jose (receiving fourth- and fifth-rounders for a fourth, essentially a slight step back for more volume, a win).
- A week later, on the eve of July 1st, Bergevin makes his third-best move as Habs GM, sending prospect Simon Bourque to the Jets for Armia, a 2019 seventh-rounder, a 2020 fourth-rounder and Steve Mason's cap hit, which he buys out immediately.
Bergevin's pre-season is also overloaded with moves:
- Rychel is sent to Calgary for another first-round disappointment, Hunter Shinkaruk (gamble loss).
- In Bergevin,s second-best trade (he just may be improving!), he sends disgruntled captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for prized prospect Nick Suzuki, dependable two-way forward Tomas Tatar and a second-rounder. In pure hockey terms, any two of these would have been a win for the Canadiens - landing all three was spectacular, especially since Pacioretty actually wanted out.
- In what could very well be Bergevin's fourth-best trade, he sent Valiev and depth veteran Matt Taormina to the Flames for Brett Kulak, who has turned out to be better than the use Julien makes of him.
- Will Bitten was also sent to the Wild for Gustav Olofsson (gamble, even).
 The 2018-19 trade deadline was once again fertile ground for minor moves involving the Habs:
- The team sent defensemen Schlemko and Byron Froese to the Flyers for Weise and rugged defender Christian Folin (even).
- Taking advantage of a Kings fire sale, the Habs grabbed Nate Thompson and a fifth-rounder for a fourth-rounder, then re-signed the third-liner.
- In order to shed another local kid from the roster, the Canadiens send young grinder Michael Chaput to the Coyotes for veteran grinder Jordan Weal. The Habs lose on age, gain experience. Slight net loss here.
Then the 2019 draft came along, and with it its numerous pick swaps so that Bergevin can justify his yearly $6M salary: a swap of fourth-rounder with the Sharks, the yearly swap of seventh-rounders with the Flyers (no joke), a swap of fifth-rounders with the Panthers, and a trade-down move that gave the Kings the Canadiens' second-rounder in exchange for their third- and fifth-rounders.

The end of June 2019 was also a busy time for the GM, as he sent Shaw back to the Hawks with a seventh-rounder for a second, a third and a seventh-rounder (he really loves to move those around!), meaning that, essentially, he got three years of Shaw - a solid, proven playoff performer - two of which were not playoff seasons, by trading down a second for a third pick and losing out on DeBrincat, a 40-goal scorer.

Oh, and he got rid of Deslauriers, a local kid, for a fourth-rounder (even).

Which brings us to this week, where he sent Reilly to the Sens for ECHLer Andrew Sturtz and a fifth-rounder (loss) and got local kid Marco Scandella for a fourth (win).

That brings us to his free agent signings: Prust (UFA move), Francis Bouillon (return to original team, 35+ deal), Colby Armstrong ("no-risk" $1M deal, didn't pan out), Douglas Murray (one-year "no risk" deal, didn't pan out), Tom Gilbert (didn't pan out as second-pair defender but played ok), Manny Malhotra (didn't work as fourth-line centre), Sekac (traded out after 50 games), Drayson Bowman (minor-league move), George Holloway (minor-league move), Mike Condon (prospect/backup goalie gamble), Joey MacDonald (backup goalie gamble, didn't pan out), Joel Hanley (prospect gamble, didn't pan out), Alexander Semin ("no-risk" one-year, $1M deal, didn't pan out), Fleischmann (didn't pan out, traded out mid-season), Radulov ("mid-risk" for his salary, coming off a KHL scoring title on a "show-me" one-year deal, left as a UFA for greener pastures), Chris Terry (former prospect gamble, didn't pan out), Bobby Farnham (minor-league move), Montoya (depth goalie signing), Karl Alzner ($5M per, five-year bust, currently buried in the AHL), Mark Streit ("no risk", $1M, one-year deal for returning veteran after Cup win, didn't last a month before getting terminated), Ales Hemsky ("no-risk" one-year, $1M deal, didn't pan out), Morrow ("no-risk" one-year, $650K deal, didn't pan out), Antti Niemi ($1M backup goalie deal, didn't pan out), Keith Kincaid ($1.75M backup goalie deal, didn't pan out).

Some of his most important players have been waiver wire grabs, like Byron.

To recap, on the trade market, Bergevin has 19 wins, 24 losses, and 12 even "hockey" trades, and has gambled 36 times, winning/hitting home runs on exactly 3 of them. He rarely gives up a roster player and has yet to trade a future first-rounder, so it's normal that the returns have been underwhelming - you can't receive while never giving. In terms of free agent signings, only one gamble (Radulov) has paid off out of 14, and most non-gambles haven't worked out well either - Prust, his first signing, may be his most valuable. And one of his most consistent goal scorers, Byron, comes from waivers.

All of this to say that when Bergevin comes out saying disrespectful things about Kovalchuk like "he has to buy into the system" and "he knows it's his last chance", he does come from a place he is familiar with: he has given a boatload of players a chance that has ended up being their last, perhaps if only because if someone can't stand out on a team that keeps missing the playoffs, then other teams feel their value has dropped and their time is up.

Kovalchuk had other options - apparently with better teams like the Caps and Boston Bruins; Bergevin should be a little more thankful that #17 (after a nice gesture toward Kulak) chose Montréal and its apparently open spot on the powerplay to attempt to salvage his North American career.

Here he is during better times, sporting the Atlanta Thrashers' white (then-home) uniform on card #TS-IK from Upper Deck's 2007-08 Artifacts collection and Treasured Swatches sub-set:
It features a blue game-worn jersey swatch.

Internationally, the Russian star captained the Russian Athletes' Delegation for their gold medal run at the 2018 Olympics, where he was named the tournament MVP. He also has a bronze Olympic medal (2002), gold (2001) and silver (2000) from the World U-18s, and World Championship gold (2008, 2009), silver (2010, 2015) and bronze (2005, 2007 and 2019) medals with Team Russia.

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