Stu Cowan: Johnathan Kovacevic's 'not sexy' game blossoms with Canadiens

Claiming defenceman off waivers from Winnipeg Jets before start of last season turned out to be a great move by Habs GM Kent Hughes.

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Rick Green was the No. 1 overall pick at the 1976 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals, played 15 seasons in the league, was part of Montreal’s 1986 Stanley Cup team and after retiring as a player spent 11 years as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings and the Canadiens.

Green is now a regular panellist on the Montreal Gazette’s HI/O Show and it was interesting — but not surprising — that he said on a bonus episode taped this week that defenceman Johnathan Kovacevic is the player who has stood out the most to him through the Canadiens’ first three games this season.

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Kovacevic doesn’t have any points, but he is averaging 18:59 of ice time and through Wednesday’s games his plus-6 differential was tied for the best in the NHL with fellow defencemen Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche, Seth Jones of the Chicago Blackhawks and Brady Skjei of the Carolina Hurricanes.

When I told Kovacevic about Green’s comments following practice Thursday in Brossard, he smiled.

“That’s nice to hear, especially because I think personally that my game is not sexy, per se,” Kovacevic said. “Fans aren’t necessarily drawn to it. But I do think that just being honest with my game I’ve been playing pretty solid. It’s little things that I do well, like good sticks on puck, being in passing lanes, getting a stick on a pass that gets deflected. That’s not going to be sexy, per se, but as someone who’s a defenceman it’s something you can appreciate.”

The Canadiens claimed Kovacevic off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets four days before the start of last season and it has turned out to be a great move by GM Kent Hughes.

“Kovy is Kovy no matter what … no matter who he plays with,” head coach Martin St. Louis said after Thursday’s practice. “I think he understands what he is. With that said, he knows what he has to improve on because he knows what he is. He’s a very intelligent young man. He’s very honest of the things he needs to improve on, but he knows what he’s good at. He defends pretty well. He’s got a good stick defensively. He sees the game developing in front of him. He’s a pretty intelligent player on the ice.”

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He’s pretty intelligent off the ice, too. Kovacevic played three years at Merrimack College, where he was an assistant captain and earned back-to back Hockey East All-Academic Team honours with a 4.0 GPA, meaning he had straight As while studying civil engineering.

Before being claimed off waivers by the Canadiens, Kovacevic had only played four games in the NHL with the Jets and it looked like he might be a career minor-leaguer. But the 26-year-old has made the most of his opportunity with the Canadiens, beating out younger defencemen for a spot on this rebuilding team.

When asked if he’s amazed how far he has come in one year, Kovacevic said: “It’s not something I tend to think of because I think when I’m done with my career, when I’m older, I’ll definitely look back and go: Whoa! That was a crazy ride. But now that I’m in it, I’m just trying to focus on today.”

On Oct. 8, one of the Canadiens’ strength coaches pointed out to Kovacevic that it was the one-year anniversary of him being claimed on waivers and mentioned how far he had come.

“When you have that one date where you kind of can look back, I’m like: Well, I have come a long way in the year and that’s encouraging because I’m giving my all into the team, into my game and to try to be better,” Kovacevic said. “I think I’m further along this year than I was last year. So next year at this time I want to be even further and that’s just the way it goes.”

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Adam Nicholas, the Canadiens’ director of hockey development, has worked with Kovacevic and shown him videos of Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Jacob Slavin, who plays a similar style of game.

“He defends really well without taking penalties,” Kovacevic said about Slavin. “Having a really good stick and he’s a bigger guy. I feel like I can take a lot from him.”

Kovacevic has been happy with his game since the start of training camp, but continues to look for ways to improve.

“It’s never going to be perfect, but it’s building, I think,” he said. “I’m getting more comfortable. I think last game I didn’t like my first period, but I liked my second and third. I’m proud in the sense that I can do that — have a bad start, but have the mental strength, the resilience to be like: OK, that’s there and now let’s focus on the next period and we can turn this game around. That’s my pep talk to myself. If feels good to be able to do that.”

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