MONTREAL - There weren't quite as many smiles as expected on team photo day at the Bell Centre on Monday morning. Following the shocking announcement of Alex Kovalev being sidelined for at least three to four weeks with impending knee surgery, the hole left by Kovalev's absence in the team photo took a backseat to the vacancy sign that now hangs from the Canadiens' top line.
The appearance of team doctor David Mulder at a morning practice is never a good sign. Seated next to GM Bob Gainey, Mulder walked everyone on hand through the details of what lies ahead for Kovalev.
"We've known this was coming for some time," said Mulder. "Alex's right knee has been bothering him all season long. We've been treating him and draining fluid from his knee on a regular basis, but as those drainings became more and more frequent, it was becoming clear that this problem was not going away."
Mulder also explained that range of motion and mobility was Kovalev's ongoing problem with his knee, which is hard to believe considering his strong start to the season that has seen him rack up 19 points in 18 games.
"The important thing is the MRI results revealed no ligament damage whatsoever," added Mulder. "Alex's discomfort is due to a lack of cartilage in his right knee. This is more the result of wear and tear not linked to one specific incident. He has also been through this before when he was still with Pittsburgh."
Back in October of 2001, Kovalev had arthroscopic surgery on the same knee that caused him to miss 13 games between Oct. 16 and Nov. 10. The doctor who performed that procedure had warned Kovalev that he would likely need to have his knee re-scoped within two years. Instead, now four years later, Kovalev will finally go back under the knife.
"Given his familiarity with Kovalev's history, Dr. Charles Burke will be performing the surgery on Tuesday morning in Pittsburgh and I will also be assisting," said Mulder of Burke, who has been the Penguins team doctor since 1988. "Alex actually stopped in and was examined by Dr. Burke while the team was in Pittsburgh last week which brings us to the point we are at today."
Unable to give a clear timetable for No. 27's return to the Canadiens lineup, Mulder remained optimistic and said he would have a much clearer picture of what to expect following the procedure tomorrow morning.
"It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how long he will be out," said Mulder. "He will be resting for the next two weeks after the surgery, followed by some rehabilitation. The fact that he has been through this before will only help him know when he is ready to return."
Already on his way to Pittsburgh, Kovalev was reached during the press conference and addressed the media by conference call. Needless to say, the mood on Monday was far different from the last time Kovalev joined the Montreal media by phone from Russia on Aug. 3, the day he signed his four-year pact with the Canadiens this summer.
"With the team off to such a good start, it wasn't easy for to me to make the decision to finally have the surgery," said Kovalev on his cell phone after having just passed through customs at Trudeau Airport. "It's definitely frustrating, but it just became time to finally deal with the problem. I just want to get it over with and get on with the season as soon as possible."
Bob Gainey made it a point to mention that although Kovalev would be missed, this unfortunate turn of events will now present an opportunity for someone to step up.
"You don't replace a player like Alex Kovalev," said Gainey. "But we do pride ourselves on the depth we have on this team. That same depth that helped us carry on when we were without Richard Zednik for several weeks will have to fill the void again.
"These things happen," added Gainey. "Toronto was dealt a blow when their captain Mats Sundin was out of their lineup for several weeks and they managed to fight through it. This is a part of our business."
After having filled in admirably during Richard Zednik's eight-game absence at the start of the season, rookie Alexander Perezhogin found himself back alongside Saku Koivu on the Canadiens top line during Monday's practice.
"Alexander jumped in there and did a heck of job for us when Zednik went down and hopefully he can pick up where he left off and help us out again," said Julien about the 22-year-old, who picked up seven points including three goals duning Zednik's absence.
Word of Kovalev's wonky knee had been pretty hush-hush in the Canadiens dressing room but captain Saku Koivu was well aware of his ailing sidekick's condition.
"I knew about it as soon as it started giving him problems," admitted Koivu, who is no stranger to knee surgery himself, wearing not one but two knee braces whenever he's on in the ice. "Not many of the guys knew about it and Alex told me just the other day that it was a matter of time before something had to be done. It's a huge loss for us but thankfully it's only a scope and he'll be back soon."
The Canadiens' other Alex and resident substitute sniper so far this season, Perezhogin was taken aside by Koivu for a little one-on-one as the Russian rookie prepares for the daunting task of filling Kovalev's skates.
"Saku talked to me a bit this morning during practice and told me what I need to do defensively," said Perezhogin. "I'm less nervous than I was when I first heard that I was going to play on the No. 1 line in October. I'm just looking forward to getting more ice-time and doing my part."
A look ahead at the Canadiens' calendar reveals a scheduling quirk that may now become a blessing in disguise for Koivu and Co. The Canadiens have no games slated between Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, the same week that would amount to the month Dr. Mulder is roughly eyeing for Kovalev's return. If that's the case, Kovalev may only have to miss a total of nine games. Whether that week of inactivity in December factored into Kovalev deciding this was the time to shut himself down remains to be seen, but whenever No. 27 does make his return, it won't be soon enough for Canadiens fans.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com