Jack Todd: Ilya Kovalchuk is fire on ice. The Canadiens need to keep him

Jack Todd: Ilya Kovalchuk is fire on ice. The Canadiens need to keep him
In an extraordinary stroke of luck, has fallen into your lap. He was supposed to be finished. He isn’t. From what we have seen, Kovalchuk appears capable of playing at an elite level for at least two more seasons.

Here’s the situation, Marc. You have three players now on the roster who are headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame: Carey Price, Shea Weber and Kovalchuk. Your plan was to develop players from among an impressive list of young talent and hope they matured in time to make a serious Stanley Cup run while Price and Weber are still young enough to lead the way.

But what if you can add a guy who has 440 career goals and 427 assists despite spending five seasons in the KHL? Can you be flexible enough to change the plan in mid-stride and to take advantage of a rare gift from the hockey gods?

If you’re not going to make a bold move to sign the man, Marc, then you should trade him before the deadline.

That would be a mistake, as would trading him and hoping to re-sign him in the offseason. The man is here now. Don’t let him get away. Luck only matters if you take advantage of it. That’s why you have salary-cap room, right? For flexibility? You’ve been roasted for it, but cap room has its uses. Use that flexibility to get the man’s signature on the dotted line.

This time, no pussyfooting around. No waiting until July and making a half-hearted “first come, first served” offer. Go for it. If you believe Kovalchuk is a truly dynamic force on the ice, if you agree it’s the equivalent of adding a 36-year-old Alex Ovechkin to your roster, then get it done. He will put fans in the seats, goals in the nets and points in the standings.

The atmosphere at the Bell Centre is pure oxygen to Ilya Kovalchuk, writes Jack Todd. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Will it be enough to carry this team to the playoffs in the spring? Probably not. But he’s already signed for this spring. You’re looking at the next two or three seasons, that window before Price and Weber can no longer carry a team, and you’re getting an extraordinary player — a player who wants to be here.

It’s impossible to emphasize that enough. Some guys wilt in the pressure of Montreal. Others were born to play here. Kovalchuk is one of those: to him, the atmosphere at the Bell Centre is pure oxygen.

There have been a number of comparisons made between Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov, who ended up in Dallas after a free-agency fiasco. Both players are big, Russian and spent time in the KHL — but the similarity ends there.

Radulov has 134 NHL goals in his career and has never hit the 30-goal mark. Kovalchuk has topped that level eight times. He was over the 40-goal mark five consecutive years, with two 52-goal seasons. Had he remained in the NHL, in all likelihood he would already have topped the 600-goal mark.

Russians can be difficult, as any reporter who covered Alexei Yashin or Vladimir Malakhov can tell you. They can party a little too hard off the ice — Radulov himself comes to mind. They can be like Alexei Kovalev, the Enigma. One night, Kovalev would take over a game. The next night, he would sit brooding on the bench, staring at the ice as though he was a character in a Dostoyevsky novel trying to work out an existential dilemma.

Kovalev will be remembered fondly for turning the Leafs’ Darcy Tucker into a speed bump on the highway of life, but he only topped the 40-goal mark once in his career. He was not Kovalchuk, either. He was not fire on ice.

Sign the man, Marc.

Is there a risk to signing a player who will be 37 in April for another two or three seasons? Of course, there is.

Is there any other player on the roster or in the pipeline who might give you what Kovalchuk does? Of course, there isn’t.

We can hold out hope for Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Ryan Poehling, Jesperi “K.O.” Kotkaniemi — but let’s face it: not one of them, on the best day of his career, will be able to bring what Kovalchuk brings to the ice.

It’s been said the Canadiens should flip Kovalchuk for a second-round draft pick or maybe a late first-rounder before the trade deadline. Why? Because they don’t already have enough prospects in Laval?

As my late great and good friend Red Fisher used to say: “Show me who gets off the bus.” By that, he meant real players. Players like those Red covered, from the Rocket through the Flower. Special players, extraordinary talents. Like Ilya Kovalchuk.

Sign the man, Marc. No fooling around, no half-hearted offers. If any of the doom-and-gloom buzzards that are always circling this team bitch about it, I’ll remind them they’ve been screaming for a transformational talent like M. Kovalchuk for the past 40 years.
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