One day after acquiring veteran defenseman Mathieu Schneider from the Atlanta Thrashers, General Manager Bob Gainey said he suggested to the struggling Kovalev that he skip a two-game road trip to rest his body and get his mind straightened out.
Kovalev did not accompany the Habs for games Wednesday night in Washington and Thursday night in Pittsburgh. It's not known whether he'll be back in the lineup for Saturday's home game against Ottawa or what his status will be beyond that.
"Alex's preference was to stay with the team and play, but I could see in his eyes that he agreed with it," Gainey told the assembled media, adding that the 35-year-old hadn't been suspended and would still be paid.
But he also wouldn't say when Kovalev would be back in the lineup.
"That's not a question I can answer definitely now," he said. "I'd rather let a couple of days go by than to make a hasty decision right now. We'll talk in the next 48 hours."
The Canadiens have lost 10 of their last 13 games since Jan. 20, and Kovalev has only one goal and five assists in that span.
Kovalev led the Canadiens in scoring last season with 84 points, the second-most productive season of his career, but his numbers have fallen off. He has 13 goals and 26 assists in 57 games this season, but only 1 goal and 4 assists in the 11 games since he was named the most valuable player at the NHL All-Star Game in Montreal on Jan. 25. He has often appeared listless and showed little of the fire that endeared him to Montreal fans last season, when the Canadiens finished first overall in the Eastern Conference.
"The team doesn't need him the way he's playing now," Gainey said when asked why the move was made. "To score goals and help other people score, you have to do a lot of different things. To stay on task, to do the mundane, small, detail, mandatory things to keep the team afloat is a harder thing for some players than for others."
Gainey said Kovalev had not asked to be traded and he gave indication that he's trying to make a deal, although he added that anything can happen until the NHL trade deadline on March 4.
Gainey recalled that Kovalev is a player who can snap out of a lethargy at any time and start playing like a star, as he did in the playoffs his first season with Montreal in 2003-04 and again last season -- following an off-season talk with Gainey after a disappointing 2006-07 campaign.
The Canadiens have little cap room available to bring in new talent unless the other team accepts as much or less in salary obligations than it takes on in a trade.
There was surprise around the dressing room at the Kovalev move.
"It's probably a minor, temporary thing, but the message is clear to the players -- we have to step up and move forward." defenseman Mike Komisarek said.
Carbonneau said he hopes Kovalev uses the time with his family to get his mind together and "hopefully he'll come back and play better.
"It was Bob's decision and he doesn't take decisions lightly. I trust his instincts."
The Canadiens also sent slumping 21-year-old forward Sergei Kostitsyn to Hamilton of the AHL and called up physical winger Gregory Stewart.
"Gregory has played three games for us and he made a good impression," Gainey said. "Sergei's been struggling to become the player he was last year. We gave him all kinds of chances. I have no doubt that he's a good NHL player, but talent alone is not enough to keep you in this League."
Material from wire services and Canadian media was used in this report.