Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin felt Ilya Kovalchuk earned the right to help choose his next destination.
With multiple teams interested in Kovalchuk’s services, Bergevin wanted to make sure the winger was included in trade talks after he expressed his desire to play for a Stanley Cup contender.
The Canadiens dealt Kovalchuk to the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals for a 2020 third-round pick late Sunday night. Montreal is six points out of a playoff spot.
“Could I have waited an extra day for a better trade? Maybe,” Bergevin said after Monday’s trade deadline. “But maybe I would have waited, and the return would have been worse. And I didn’t want to trade Kovy to a team he didn’t want to play for.
“He deserved that from our organization. He accepted to come here. He’s likely a Hall-of-Famer. Some veteran players deserve that.”
Kovalchuk had six goals and 13 points in 22 games since joining the Canadiens on Jan. 3 after being waived by the Los Angeles Kings a month earlier.
The 36-year-old stopped at Montreal’s practice facility to say farewell to his former Canadiens teammates on Monday before heading to the airport en route to Washington.
Kovalchuk told reporters he spoke to Capitals star and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin on Sunday and was excited for a chance to win the Cup.
“Like I said from Day 1, when I came back to the NHL, that’s my dream,” he said. “Washington, I feel like I can help them. They’re already good everywhere, but it’s a great opportunity. I know a lot of guys there.
“Hopefully we’ll do some damage in the playoffs.”
The veteran did not rule out the possibility of returning to the Canadiens as a free agent on July 1.
A fan favourite in Montreal, Kovalchuk was also loved by his teammates for his play on the ice and his leadership in the dressing room.
“I was excited to be on the same team as him and play on the same line, just to see all the little things he does,” rookie Nick Suzuki said after practice on Monday. “He puts himself into such good areas to score and make plays.
“He told me to keep working hard. He says he sees a good future for me here. It’s real nice to hear that from him. He’s a legend in the hockey community. To get the opportunity to play with him is something I will never forget.”
Bergevin was pleased with his deadline day despite no major transactions.
The Canadiens traded pending unrestricted free agent forward Nate Thompson to the Philadelphia Flyers for a fifth-round draft pick.
The 35-year-old Thompson had four goals and 10 assists in 63 games with Montreal this season.
The Flyers will be Thompson’s eighth NHL team, following runs with Boston, the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Ottawa, L.A., and Montreal.
“Montreal took me in, in such a short amount of time,” he said. “To be able to have the notoriety that I’ve had here is something I will never forget. It’s been one heck of an experience for me.”
“I’m not done. I still feel like I have a lot of hockey left and I can keep playing for a little while.”
The Canadiens also traded forward Nick Cousins to the Vegas Golden Knights for a fourth-round pick in 2021.
Along with Kovalchuk and defenceman Marco Scandella, who was traded to the St. Louis Blues last week, Bergevin moved four players for draft picks.
“It hurts to see those veterans go because some young guys need them,” winger Jonathan Drouin said. “Some guys are going to have to step up a little bit here. Veterans who are gone today, hopefully they come back and have the same impact they did.”
Bergevin refused to trade away his core group of players like goaltender Carey Price, defenceman Jeff Petry or winger Tomas Tatar, who were all rumoured to be on the chopping block. Those players could have fetched a substantial return on the trade market.
The Canadiens have amassed 14 picks at this year’s draft, including six in the first three rounds.
“I have to look, as a general manger, at the big picture,” Bergevin said. “Our core hasn’t changed. The guys I feel that will help us keep fighting for a playoff spot, and moving forward next year, are still on the team.
“Next year, we intend to put a good team on the ice.”
In a minor-league move, Montreal sent Matthew Peca to the Ottawa Senators for 22-year-old Aaron Luchuk and a seventh-round pick in 2020.