Caps brought Kovalchuk in to win a Stanley Cup: 'That's why he's here'

Chris Lingebach
March 06, 2020 - 6:14 pm

Despite managing to win only two games since his arrival, the Capitals have fostered a seamless transition for Ilya Kovalchuk on their third line.

"He's fit in I think well on that third line," Capitals coach Todd Reirden said during his bi-weekly appearance with The Sports Junkies, presented by Sheehy Auto Stores.

"They've been able to carry some chances for ratio definitely in a positive fashion," he said. "It's provided a little bit of a different element for the line than we had with Richard Panik on it. That being said, I move things around in games. I've taken a look at some different stuff, different D pairings."

"But up front, after some penalty kills, I was able to go with an all-Russian line there with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov and then Kovalchuk together," Reirden went on. "And they were able to find the back of the net together and then they strung together a few good shifts. It just opens so many different options for me with a player that obviously brings the elite offensive ability that Ilya has."

"But I think more importantly, he's fitting in really well with our room," he said. "He's not a first-year pro, that's for sure, so he understands the importance of fitting in with everybody and spending time, not just with the Russian players but fitting in with our entire group.

"We've got a pretty tight group, so it's good. He's fit in pretty seamlessly here for sure and I think the combination of him and Brenden Dillon have really strengthened our locker room, so it's been good."

Reirden and 13-year NHL veteran actually go way back, all the way to Kovy's rookie NHL season with the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers in 2001-02. That wound up being Reirden's second-to-last season of his NHL playing career. Kovalchuk was just coming into the league as an 18-year-old prodigy at the time as the first overall pick.

"For whatever reason, I think when I was spending my time in the National Hockey League, every day for me was obviously a gift," Reirden said. "I'd kind of beaten the odds to be able to play in the NHL. Sometimes I think I got that break to be there because of some of the things I did maybe off the ice, and that was trying to help younger guys, whatever nation they were from.

"Whether it was Mikko Koivu, who I was with in his first year when he came over and was with me in Houston, or Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley in Atlanta, or I can go down the list of different guys. I always seemed to take a liking to not only help those guys understand the North American game, but also ease the language barrier."

"As always, the way to any of those young players' hearts is to have your wife cook them a nice meal," Reirden said with a laugh. "Then you know you're in. They definitely take a liking to a home-cooked meal, so we've done that in the past – my wife and I – and it's always kind of been something where I thought is important to help ease the transition for these young guys that are coming over to a brand new country."

"So Ilya and I, yep. That was a long, long time ago," he said. "But happy to have him here with us and continuing to help him reach his goal, and that's to win a Stanley Cup. That's why he's here."

Reirden went into detail on the great lengths to which his wife would go to make those young players feel at home in America. It's really something.

"What she would do – in let's say Mikko Koivu, you know the captain of the Minnesota Wild's case – she would go to Barnes & Noble, she'd research what they would eat in Finland, and then she would make that meal," he said. "So it would be like a home-cooked meal. There was a couple different types of vegetables that they would have so that they would feel comfortable."

"She would cook salmon a certain way. Obviously that's a Scandinavian meal," he recalled. "And just some different potatoes, the way that they had 'em, and prepare 'em that way. The first one was always that way, and it was kind of our way of, like I said, I've always been on the give-and-take in terms of learning their language – give one word, take one word – and then if you want to make 'em feel real comfortable, give 'em a meal that they'd have at home. It was a pretty good idea by her. She's a done a great job in this whole process as well."