March 2, 2004, Montreal trades Josef Balej and a 2nd round pick in the 2004 draft to the New York Rangers for Alex Kovalev.
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The 2003-04 season was a very typical one for the Canadiens of the time, struggling to score goals and fighting like dogs to reach a playoff position. Canadiens General Manager Bob Gainey went shopping at the trade deadline and struck a deal with the Rangers to acquire the underachieving but ultra-talented Kovalev.
The trade did not pay off immediate dividends as Kovalev would play 12 regular season games with the Habs before the 2004 playoffs and would only score 3 points, his only goal coming by way of an empty netter. Montreal would enter the playoffs as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference and a major underdog against the Stanley Cup contending and archrival Boston Bruins. After four games of this series Montreal was trailing 3 games to 1 and Kovalev was only being talked about for embellishing a slash to his wrist in double overtime of game four, which led to a turnover and a Bruins game winning goal by sniper Glen Murray.
However, Kovalev would do what he became famous for during his time in Montreal by swinging the pendulum as far as possible in the opposite direction and begin to dominate the series. Combining with Saku Koivu and Richard Zednik, the Habs top line would prove too quick and too creative for the bigger but slower Bruins defence and lead the Canadiens on a comeback from the 3-1 series deficit to oust the Bruins in 7 games. The Habs would ultimately lose in the second round to eventual Cup winning Tampa Bay Lightning, with Kovalev scoring 10 points in 11 games.
Kovalev would play four full seasons with the Canadiens following the season lost to a lockout. His slick hands and amazing skills with the puck, not to mention his ability to disappear for games at a time, always left fans wanting more but he ended his stint in Montreal colors with some impressive credentials.
Kovalev’s first full season with the Habs was in 2005-06. He would lead the team with 65 points in 69 games and would continue his pace in the playoffs, again leading the Habs with 7 points in a heartbreaking 6 game defeat to eventual Cup champion, Carolina Hurricanes. His lone disappointing season with Montreal came the following year, when he totaled just 47 points in 73 games, was a minus 19 and Montreal narrowly missed the playoffs.
Kovalev rebounded in a big way during the 2007-08 season, having one of the best years of his career. He played all 82 games and finished with 35 goals and 84 points, both leading the team. The Habs would finish 1st in the Eastern Conference thanks to Kovalev’s offense but would ultimately lose out in the second round of the playoffs once again. Kovalev led the team in playoff scoring with 11 points in 12 games.
High hopes surrounded the Canadiens heading into their centennial season in 2008-09 and having finished on top of the East the previous season. As we all recall things did not go quite as planned and Montreal would eventually finish 8th in the East and be swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Bruins. Much of the blame would be thrown Kovalev’s way by many fans for the team not meeting expectations. Kovalev did have an up and down year but would finish the season, once again as the team’s leading scorer with only 65 points in 78 games. He also chipped in as many points as any Hab in their short playoff appearance with 3 points in 4 games.
Kovalev’s time in Montreal was a bit of a see-saw affair, but the bottom line is he was the best player on the team during his tenure. In four full seasons he led the team in scoring three times and contributed in a big way in the playoffs.
He was eventually allowed to walk away as a free agent following the disappointing 08-09 season as Gainey decided to change the complexion of the Habs in a big way. Some fans, the ones who expected more from Kovalev were glad to see him leave for Ottawa and collect his big paycheque in our nation’s capital. Others however, the fans who appreciated what Kovalev brought to the table, rallied in front of the Bell Centre to try and convince Gainey to keep Kovalev in town, an act of appreciation that is not seen very often in the world of sports.
The players given up to get Kovalev have suited up for a combined 18 NHL games and only 6 points, all by Balej as the draft pick turned into Bruce Graham who has never made it to the NHL.
In 314 games with the Canadiens, Kovalev notched 264 points. To get such a dynamic player who overall put up great numbers in Montreal for such a small price is why this is the 9th best trade in modern day Habs history.
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