Think Alexei Kovalev was happy to leave Montreal? Think again

July, 6, 2009

I don't think Alexei Kovalev was very happy getting squeezed out of Montreal, a place he absolutely loved living in, and out of a team he liked playing for.

The good news for the veteran Russian star is he has to move a mere 90 minutes down the highway to Ottawa after signing a two-year, $10 million contract with the Senators on Monday. And no matter what he says, I guarantee the fact he picked a divisional rival was not by coincidence. He will relish trying to rub it in every chance he gets.

The question is, Why is he no longer in a Habs uniform? Here's what we can gather from various sources.

In the days leading up to July 1, the Canadiens made Kovalev an offer; the Kovalev camp countered June 30 with a pitch Montreal didn't like; the Habs made another offer the morning of July 1 before the market opened; the player's camp again countered with an offer that was deemed unacceptable by Montreal.

Then, the market opened and the Canadiens were busy, signing Michael Cammalleri and Brian Gionta up front. No more room for Kovalev. And he might have been surprised how quickly his personal cap space evaporated.

Players such as Steve Sullivan, Erik Cole and Chad LaRose were able to try out the market before re-signing with their old teams, but it doesn't always work that way. Habs GM Bob Gainey acted swiftly on July 1, and there was no time for Kovalev to retreat back.

"Bob had made clear to me that once they had signed Brian Gionta, they could not fit Alex in anymore," Kovalev's agent, Scott Greenspun, told on Monday.

The Kovalev camp regrouped after being shown the door and received sizable interest.

"There were about six teams that we had been having discussions since July 1, and we finally got it done today," Greenspun said.

Give Greenspun credit. Getting the coin he got for two years with his client being 36 years old was pretty darn impressive. Kovalev is a player who has almost unmatched talent in the NHL, but he chooses to display it only when he feels like it. You can bet he'll feel like displaying it in the six games against Montreal next season.

I'll say this for the Canadiens, I honestly don't know whether Cammalleri, Gionta, Scott Gomez, Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill make them a better team than Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay, Christopher Higgins, Mike Komisarek and the other discarded free agents. But if you're Gainey, you've done at least one thing: clean out a club that fell apart spectacularly in the second half of last season. The collective performance was unacceptable, and Gainey is reacting loudly with his actions.

In the case of Koivu, this is the proverbial throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He's a character guy, but he was politely shown the door with the rest of the free-agent group. But when you're turning the page, as the Canadiens decided to do, having a new captain and a new voice in the room can be deemed necessary. And let's face it, maybe Koivu needed a new challenge, as well. At least he won't be asked next season why he doesn't speak French.

Are the Habs any better? Impossible to tell at this point.

What does all this mean for Ottawa? Sens GM Bryan Murray made it a priority to find a top-six forward in free agency before Dany Heatley's trade request, so I don't think one has anything to do with the other. In fact, when and if Murray trades Heatley this summer, he likely will try to get back a top-six forward in the return package.

No, the Kovalev signing is about a team that hasn't had enough top-six depth up front in quite a while, with or without Heatley. I think Ottawa overpaid a bit, but given its lack of activity in the opening days of July because of the Heatley drama, the Sens had to do something before no one was left on the market.

Elsewhere Monday:

• The best defenseman left on the free-agent market found a home when Francois Beauchemin signed with Toronto for three years and $11.4 million. Might seem like a strange signing for a rebuilding club such as the Maple Leafs, but Beauchemin is only 29 and still fits into that mold.

Beauchemin, Komisarek, Tomas Kaberle (if he's not traded) and Luke Schenn give the Leafs a nice top four. Not bad for a team that's supposedly on the slow rebuild.

Maybe veteran GM Brian Burke has decided to fast-track the rebuild? That's always the temptation when you run the Leafs because you know just how much it would mean to end the 42-year Cup drought. It's tough to remain patient in that market.

Losing Beauchemin is tough for Anaheim but not unforeseen; the Ducks could not afford the $3.8 million per season price tag.

"We were never in it," Ducks GM Bob Murray told on Monday. "I can't afford that. Good for Beauchemin, though."

Murray said his preference at this point is to try to find a No. 2 center. He refused to discuss names, but a source had told last week that the Ducks were among the teams, along with Minnesota, to talk to Koivu's camp. Interestingly, New Jersey, according to a source Monday, was also in the Koivu mix. The Devils lost Gionta and John Madden via free agency.

• Not much fanfare given to restricted free agent Higgins' signing a one-year deal worth $2.25 million with the New York Rangers, who acquired his rights in the Gomez deal last week. On one hand, the Rangers get a very good player cheap, cheap, cheap for next season. On the other hand, Higgins has set himself up nicely for the unrestricted-free-agent market next July if he's unable to sign an extension with New York. If he has a good season, he'll get his payday.

• Tanguay, for my money, remains the best forward left on the market. Ownership issues and all, the Phoenix Coyotes are one of the teams in talks with him. But another source told on Monday night that the Coyotes' talking to Tanguay and their actually signing him are two different things.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?