- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2020

ARLINGTON — A long and bumpy road has brought Ilya Kovalchuk to his third team of the season in the Washington Capitals. But the Capitals‘ latest trade has a chance to be mutually beneficial.

For Kovalchuk, the chance to play with longtime friend Alex Ovechkin and the shot at a Stanley Cup make Washington an ideal new home. For the Capitals, acquiring the depth goal scorer might be the final piece needed to get back on track and make a serious playoff push.

The Capitals sent the Montreal Canadiens their 2020 third-round draft pick for Kovalchuk Sunday on the eve of the trade deadline, and remained active Monday by swapping defenseman Christian Djoos for Anaheim Ducks forward Daniel Sprong in a minor-league trade.

Last week, the Capitals bolstered their blue line, their biggest area of need, by trading for Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks. But the Kovalchuk deal carries the biggest name recognition and most intrigue among the three trades Washington has made in the past six days.

“So many good reports and viewings of what he did in Montreal,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said Monday. “I think he’s a fit for our team. We think he can add a lot offensively, playmaking. So many good things have been said about him on and off the ice in Montreal that we basically thought it was a no-brainer to add him.”

Kovalchuk, the first overall draft pick in 2001, used to be an Ovechkin-esque goal scorer in his own right. He’s fourth in career goals among all active players with 442.

The 36-year-old started the year out with the Los Angeles Kings, but quickly found himself a healthy scratch on a daily basis. The Kings gave him a three-year, $18.75 million contract in 2018 when he decided to return to the NHL after a five-year stint in Russia’s KHL; 10 weeks into the season, they chose to place him on unconditional waivers.

The Canadiens took a flyer and gave him a veteran-minimum deal — and soon it was a glimpse of vintage Kovalchuk, as he rang up six goals and seven assists in 22 games, including three game-winning goals and two shootout goals.

“It’s difficult for me to analyze what happened in L.A., not being there and (knowing) his situation,” MacLellan said. “To completely turn it around the way he did, to be as productive and to have as much impact as he had on the Montreal team both on and off the ice — their manager (Marc) Bergevin, he couldn’t say enough good things about the character of the guy and the way he handled himself in Montreal.”

The Canadiens found themselves unlikely to make the playoffs, so they flipped Kovalchuk for a pick. When Kovalchuk becomes a free agent after the season, the Canadiens are likely to want him back. So Bergevin reportedly let Kovalchuk dictate where he’d like to spend the rest of the season.

Kovalchuk’s agent told a Russian sports outlet that the Canadiens let Kovalchuk choose between the Capitals and the Boston Bruins, both Stanley Cup contenders. Speaking to the media in Montreal Monday morning, Kovalchuk disputed the idea that it was down to those two teams, but affirmed his excitement to join the Capitals.

“I feel like I can help (the Capitals),” Kovalchuk said. “They’re already good everywhere but it’s a great opportunity. I know a lot of guys there, I played against and with, national teams and other teams. It’s exciting for me. Obviously looking to go all the way, hopefully we’ll do some damage in the playoffs.”

Hockey analysts praised the trade. ESPN graded it an A-minus for both Washington and Montreal.

Kovalchuk will join the Capitals for their morning skate Tuesday before a home game against the Winnipeg Jets. It’s unknown whether he will make his team debut then.

MacLellan said he sees Kovalchuk as a third-line right wing and potential power-play contributor whom the coaches can move around for different situations.

“I think he likes the style of play that we have,” MacLellan said. “I’ve talked to him a couple times about accepting a role and he’s pretty clear in his mind that he’ll do anything as long as he has a chance to win a championship.”

Kovalchuk said he spent “a lot of time” on the phone with Ovechkin Sunday after the trade was announced. The countrymen struck up a friendship long ago and have played together for the Russian national team; they even spent some time together with their wives during Christmas.

“I think they talked beforehand about they’d like to play together,” MacLellan said. “But Ovi, I think he had a good approach to it, saying if it makes sense, I’d like it to happen. If it doesn’t make sense then it’s not meant to be. He kind of had a mature attitude about it.”

The Capitals also dealt Djoos, who spent most of the season in the AHL and played only two NHL games this year, to Anaheim for Sprong. Djoos, part of the Capitals‘ Cup-winning squad, had fallen down the organizational depth chart and did not have a rosy future in Washington, so he’ll get a fresh start.

Sprong, meanwhile, has 97 NHL games under his belt in Pittsburgh and Anaheim with 19 goals. He won’t crack the Capitals‘ lineup just yet, but gives the club forward depth that it lacked in the minors.

In an extremely tight Metropolitan Division, the Capitals‘ rivals matched them with marquee acquisitions on a busy trade deadline day. The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Sharks center Patrick Marleau, who, like Kovalchuk, is an aging forward on an expiring contract that figures to bolster the bottom six of his new team.

The New York Islanders dealt three picks to Ottawa for center Jean-Gabriel Pageau and signed him to a six-year extension in an effort to pick up their slacking offense. And the Carolina Hurricanes gave themselves a makeover by reeling in center Vincent Trocheck and defensemen Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen.

“I thought we were all pretty close going into it and now I think we’re all still close, only better teams,” MacLellan said. “I think everybody did a good job in our division and it’s going to be hard to get out of it.”

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