Cowan: Kovacevic philosophical about logjam on Canadiens' blue line

Being a healthy scratch for three consecutive games wasn’t easy, but “at the end of the day, you can only control what you can control.”

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The Canadiens are loaded with defenceman — which is a very good thing as this rebuilding process moves forward.

It’s a huge difference from the start of the 2017-18 season when 19-year-old Victor Mete was considered the best option to be on the top defence pairing with Shea Weber after being selected in the fourth round (100th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft.

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The Canadiens’ six defencemen to start the 2017-18 season were Weber, Mete, Jeff Petry, Karl Alzner, Jordie Benn and Mark Streit. The Canadiens got off to a 2-7-1 start that season and finished 28th in the overall NHL standings with a 29-40-13 record. Weber only played 28 games before being shut down with a fractured foot he suffered while blocking a shot in the season opener. His foot required surgery and it was the beginning of the end of Weber’s career.

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The seven defencemen on the Canadiens’ roster now are Mike Matheson, David Savard, Kaiden Guhle, Jayden Struble, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj and Johnathan Kovacevic. Harris and Xhekaj are 23, while Struble and Guhle are 22. The Canadiens also have Justin Barron, 22, and Logan Mailloux, 20, playing for the AHL’s Laval Rocket with fellow defencemen Lane Hutson, 20, and David Reinbacher, 19, on the horizon as they finish up their seasons with Boston University and Kloten HC in the Swiss-A League, respectively.

Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis has had to do a bit of juggling with his defencemen while deciding who sits out each game.

“We have the luxury, I guess, right now to be healthy back there,” St. Louis said after practice Monday in Brossard. “There’s a guy that’s going to sit and there’s guys in the minors that are probably ready to see what they got, too. But we’re toeing that line of what’s best for the player, what’s best for us, what’s best for Laval.

“It’s a good problem to have,” the coach added. “But it’s not as easy for some of the players sometimes, so we got to communicate, keep them engaged and make sure there’s a path for each and all of them and try to attack some of the things they need to work on.”

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Kovacevic, 26, was made a healthy scratch for three consecutive games before getting back in the lineup for Tuesday’s 3-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Bell Centre, taking Harris’s spot. Kovacevic has one more season left on his contract with a salary-cap hit of US$766,667, which is a real bargain as the lowest-paid player on the team. In 52 games this season, the 6-foot-5, 223-pounder has 6-3-9 totals while averaging 16:31 of ice time to go along with a team-best plus-9 differential.

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The Canadiens have 17 games left this season and Kovacevic was asked after Tuesday’s morning skate if he has something to prove as far as keeping his spot with the team next season.

“I try not to think about that because, at the end of the day, you can only control what you can control,” he said. “I thought I was playing some good hockey and then you get taken out of the lineup and that’s not up to me. It matters to me to keep my own scoreboard. You keep track about how you feel about yourself — if you played well, if you didn’t play well. You have to acknowledge yourself if you’re playing well and if you’re not you have to be on yourself because, at the end of the day, you can’t control whether you’re in the lineup or not and sometimes there’s other factors that might influence that. So just focused on myself.”

Kovacevic is a smart guy, both on and off the ice. He has a degree in civil engineering from Merrimack College, where he played for three seasons, was an assistant captain and earned back-to-back Hockey East All-Academic Team Honours and scholar-athlete awards for finishing with a 4.0 grade-point average — the equivalent to an A letter grade. It’s not surprising that he has an impressive ability to analyze his current situation with the Canadiens.

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“When you’re younger, you want to always kind of kick the door down and take the next step,” he said. “I’m ready to do that but, at the same time, patience is a really important trait to have. It’s been a good test of my mental strength (being a healthy scratch), just having a good attitude every day. The things I can control I’m always going to keep those things turned up to 100, so I’ll just keep doing that. I’m proud of my work ethic and how I’ve played.

“You want to play,” he added. “I’m a hockey player at the end of the day. That (internal) competition is what gets us going. It gives you purpose, it makes you feel alive in a way. It’s unfortunate (being a scratch) but, at the same time, you can only control what you can control.”

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