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Caps Add Kovalchuk in Deal with Habs

Caps add veteran winger, 36, to the middle of their forward mix ahead of the NHL's trade deadline

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

From the time he burst onto the NHL scene in Atlanta as the first overall pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft through the end of his days as a Devil in New Jersey in 2012-13, Ilya Kovalchuk was a potent goal scorer and a point-per-game player. When he opted to continue his playing career in his native Russia at the age of 30 in 2013-14, he had piled up 816 points (417 goals, 399 assists) in exactly as many NHL games with the Thrashers and Devils.

Now 36, Kovalchuk is no longer an elite offensive threat, but as his recent return stints with Los Angeles and Montreal have shown, he is still a player with an offensive knack who can be a valued contributor to the middle of an NHL team's forward corps.

That's what the Caps are banking on in obtaining Kovalchuk from the Canadiens on Sunday night, less than 24 hours ahead of Monday's NHL trade deadline. The move is a reasonable cost, low-risk move for the Capitals, who send their third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft to the Habs for Kovalchuk. Montreal retains 50 percent of the winger's salary; he is on a one-year deal that pays $700,000 annually; it's the pact he signed when he joined the Canadiens in early January after Los Angeles bought out Kovalchuk's multi-year deal.

Kovalchuk is averaging slightly more than half a point per game since returning to North America to sign with L.A. last season. He has totaled 25 goals and 56 points in 103 games on his second tour of NHL duty, while posting good possession numbers that are driven by mostly offensive zone starts. He averaged 15:25 per night in 17 games with the Kings this season, but has been skating top six minutes - 18:54 a night - in his 22 games with Montreal.

Washington is likely to plug Kovalchuk in on the right side of its third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin, while shifting Richard Panik to the left side of the fourth line. Panik has played most of the season on his off-side and will likely be more effective playing as a portside winger. That would leave Brendan Leipsic - who is without a goal since Nov. 27 - as the odd man out at the moment, but it would also ideally give Caps coach Todd Reirden a bottom six he could deploy more liberally, to take some of the load off Alex Ovechkin and others in the top six.

The Caps' recent deployment of their forwards has been top heavy, with Ovechkin playing more minutes this month than any other this season. Ovechkin is on pace to play the third most minutes of any 34-year-old forward since the league began tracking ice time a couple decades back.

Kovalchuk becomes the oldest player on the NHL's oldest team; Ovechkin held that distinction until today. The addition of Kovalchuk gives the Caps five Russians, along with center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov.

With the addition of Washington's third-rounder in 2020, the Canadiens now hold 13 picks in this summer's draft, which will be held in Montreal. The Habs have at least one pick in each of the seven rounds, with three picks in the second and fourth rounds, and two choices in the third and fifth rounds.

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