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Ilya Kovalchuk: A Low-Risk Spark

A low-risk, potentially high-reward trade for this Russian sniper could be the key to unlocking the rest of the Capitals’ season

NHL: FEB 20 Canadiens at Capitals Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Capitals landed one of the bigger names on the trade market in Brenden Dillon last week, but clearly GM Brian MacLellan was far from done making a splash at the deadline. Last night, the Caps acquired Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a 2020 third round draft pick. In addition, the Habs agreed to retain 50% of Kovalchuk’s salary and cap hit, which means he will only cost the Capitals about $76,000. That’s some straight-up finesse from GMBM right there.

We all know who Ilya Kovalchuk is. We all remember his impressive shootout performance opposite T.J. Oshie in Sochi 2014. We all know what a disaster his contract with the LA Kings turned out to be this season. We all know that the Habs picked him up for next to nothing at the beginning of January, and we all know that he seemed to inject some vivacity into a lifeless Canadiens lineup. But what does all of this mean for the Capitals? Hint: this could be really really good.

The 36-year-old Russian sniper is known for his offensive ability and quick trigger on the ice. He adds depth to an already pretty solid Capitals lineup, where he will most likely slot in on the third line beside Carl Hagelin and Lars Eller. He didn’t rack up a ton of points in Montreal (13 points in 22 games) but he was incredibly noticeable in clutch situations. Three of his six goals were game-winners, including two overtime tallies.

Something else to note: Kovalchuk apparently turned up his defensive play with the Habs, an issue that the Caps have been struggling with overall lately. His sample size in Montreal this season is small, but take a look at these heatmaps:

Source: HockeyViz

A shocking departure from his “offense only” reputation, I know. With Kovalchuk on the ice, the Canadiens limited opponents to fewer and lower quality shots. That is certainly something the Capitals could benefit from.

The Canadiens obviously took a chance on Kovalchuk in January when no one else would, and he returned the favor by giving his stint in Montreal everything he had. He played with an incredible amount of heart and brought an impressive level of confidence to a struggling Habs roster. He was fully invested, and it showed. In just 22 games with the Habs, he looked like he was having the time of his life out on the ice.

The Capitals did not bring Ilya Kovalchuk to Washington because of blistering offensive production or an all-star caliber campaign, nor do they need either one from him on a roster already stacked with offensive talent. Kovalchuk is in D.C. to do what he appeared to do in Montreal - add a spark, inject some life, bring another veteran voice into the locker room. His long-standing relationship with Alex Ovechkin and the other Russian Caps should help him fit seamlessly into the group. He is well-liked and wants nothing more than to win a Stanley Cup, and he has shown this season that an all-in Kovalchuk is a valuable one.

A parting thought: a top line of Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Ilya Kovalchuk. Just imagine it. That’s all.

Welcome to Washington, Kovy!