Cut 4 Times, Johnathan Kovacevic Never Quit

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Montreal Canadiens defenseman Johnathan Kovacevic (26) in action during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Rachael Millanta @rachaelmillanta Feb 06, 2023, 10:05 PM
  • Johnathan Kovacevic made his NHL debut with the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 28, 2022.
  • He signed a three-year contract extension, but was placed on waivers just months later.
  • He was picked up by the Montreal Canadiens, where he joins three other rookies on the blue line.

By all accounts, Johnathan Kovacevic has settled into his rookie year without a hitch. Arguably one of the most underrated players on the Montreal Canadiens, it’s clear the 25-year-old defenseman has found his feet in the NHL — and it’s a long time coming.

“I guess everyone has their own journey, and I had to keep that in mind the whole time I was on mine,” Kovacevic told me recently in Montreal. “There are people my age who have been playing in the NHL for years now, and I’ve taken a longer path to get here. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way, just because it’s taught me so much along the journey. Every stage of hockey that I moved up, there was something I had to learn in life in order to be successful, so it’s kind of funny how hockey and life have mirrored each other in a sense.”

Through 46 games in 2022-23, Kovacevic has recorded one goal, five assists, six points, and 51 shots. He’s firmly established himself as a stable and reliable presence on the ice, solidifying the right side of the defensive group with his adaptability and ability to learn quickly.

“We both played college hockey, so I knew [Kovacevic] a bit from there,” said defenseman Jordan Harris, a fellow rookie on the Canadiens. “He’s been unreal all season — super steady and smart. I feel like a lot of his game goes underrated and is not talked about enough. He’s been really solid all year.”

Grinding in the Minors

There’s no easy way to get to the NHL, but Kovacevic took the scenic route.

After being cut from his AAA team in Southern Ontario, the defenseman was a 12th-round selection in the OHL Draft. Kovacevic ground his way through training camp twice before being cut from the OHL Niagara IceDogs — twice. He then turned to Tier II Junior A hockey to stay in the game, where he made enough waves to move up to NCAA Division I.

Kovacevic played three seasons of Division I hockey at Merrimack College, a small school in Massachusetts that competes in the Hockey East, while he completed a civil engineering degree and was passed over in the NHL Draft twice. It wasn’t until his third year of eligibility that the Winnipeg Jets finally drafted him in 2017, and still, the battle wasn’t over.

“It’s easy for me to stay focused because it’s what I love to do,” Kovacevic reflected on his journey. “I honestly love it so much that no matter what, that’s all I’m thinking about. It’ll be the middle of July, and I’ll go to bed thinking about hockey. I’ll go to bed thinking about what I can work on and how I can get a leg up. It’s just something that I’ve loved my whole life, which makes it easy.”

Kovacevic signed a two-year, entry-level deal with the Jets in March 2019 and was assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, at the start of the 2019-20 season — and that’s where he stayed for nearly three full seasons. 

He didn’t make his NHL debut until Jan. 28, 2022, recording one shot on goal in 10:21 of ice time against the Vancouver Canucks. Kovacevic’s debut made him just the 14th player in Merrimack College history to reach the NHL. Collin Delia (Vancouver Canucks) and Jim Hrivnak (Chicago Blackhawks) are the only other active alumni.

Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking the 6-foot-5 defenseman had finally found his happily-ever-after, but alas, not quite yet. 

After appearing in four games for the Jets during the 2021-22 season, the team re-signed Kovacevic to a three-year contract extension on Jul. 22, 2022, only to place him on waivers on Oct. 7.

Luckily, this time it wouldn’t take long for Kovacevic to get lifted back onto his feet. Just one day after getting cut by the Jets, he was claimed off waivers by the Canadiens. It was four days before the 2022-23 regular season opened, and for the first time in his career, Kovacevic would be starting.

“When it comes to resilience and making it, a lot of it has to do with things other than physical skills,” Kovacevic told me. “I feel like I’ve always had something — deep down, I had a belief. I’d get knocked down and get back up, and I can just do that over and over. I think that’s what’s allowed me to get so far — not being discouraged by those setbacks.”

Year of the Rookie

Kovacevic isn’t the only rookie on the 2022-23 Canadiens. In fact, they have four just on the blue line — Kovacevic, Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, and Arber Xhekaj. Long-term injuries to veterans Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson meant Montreal was desperate for defensemen, and when opening day came around, the rookies quickly got a chance to shine.

“If you’re a rookie by yourself and all the rest are vets, it’s going to be tough for you to play your game and be confident out there,” rookie Arbor Xhekaj told me. “But there’s four of us, and I think it’s really allowed us to take our game to the next level. We’re all new to the league, and it’s pretty awesome.”

Kovacevic echoed those sentiments.

“It benefits you, for sure, just because you’re stronger in numbers,” he said. “At the AHL level, I found that too. I came at a time when there were a lot of young defensemen, and we were all learning together and growing together. You have that sense of community — you talk with each other, you’re picking up on things that are helping other guys, and maybe you can support them when they’re struggling, and they’ll support you when you’re struggling. You have someone who’s in the exact same situation as you. In a way, you want to be competitive, but these guys, you’re with them so much that they’re your best friends, and you can all grow together.”

It’s not only players that are new on the Canadiens, either.

Head coach Martin St-Louis has only officially been behind the bench since Jun. 1, 2022, having stepped into an interim role after Dominique Ducharme was relieved of his duties on Feb. 9, 2022. General Manager Kent Hughes hasn’t been in Montreal much longer, having joined the team on Jan. 18, 2022, after the firing of Marc Bergevin.

Why all the changes? 

When Bergevin was dismissed in Nov. 2021, Canadiens President and CEO Geoff Molson stated the franchise needed a fresh start with a renewed focus on player development. The 2022-23 Canadiens prove this vision is coming to life.

Admittedly, the team’s position in the standings isn’t fantastic right now. As of the All-Star Break, Montreal is 26th in the league and eighth in the Atlantic division with a record of 20-27-4. It’s a long way from Stanley Cup contention, but it wasn’t expected to be — this is a young team focused on developing for the long term, and St-Louis and Hughes are leading the charge.

“They’ve done a great job of letting us be who we are as people, in the room, and on the ice,” Kovacevic reflected. “They want to take our strengths and make them even stronger — they don’t want to change us. [St-Louis] has been patient with us, for sure, because there’s always going to be a learning curve as a rookie. Not everything can just come by watching video or by watching games; there are some things you just have to learn in the heat of the battle, and they’ve been good with helping us wade our way through that.”

It’s easy to see the players’ skills and confidence develop as the season progresses. Guhle has firmly claimed a place as a top-four defenseman in Montreal. Harris has established himself as a steady and adaptable presence on the ice, often easily mistakable for a veteran. Xhekaj has quickly become a fan favorite for his exciting and robust style of play and continues to prove each game that he’s more than just a tough enforcer type. Kovacevic has become arguably the most reliable defenseman on the team.

“The rookies have done a great job for us, so it’s been fun to watch,” veteran defenseman Chris Wideman commented on their development. “They’ve given us a chance to win every night, and it’s been awesome to see.”

Whatever St-Louis is doing, he’s doing it right — even if the standings don’t show it quite yet.

What’s Next for Kovacevic?

What happens to the dreamer when he achieves his dream? Kovacevic has dedicated everything to reaching the NHL, and now, despite all the setbacks, he’s done it. 

So what’s next?

“Of course, an ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup,” Kovacevic smiled. “But for now, I want to work my way into being a more established player. I still feel like I’m finding my footing in the league. I think there’s more of myself that I can bring to the game, and I want to work my way up. I want to be a top-four defenseman and get bigger minutes and play a bigger role, and I think that’s my next step — that’s my next goal to reach for.

“I’ve been goal-driven my whole life, and it’s hard not to be goal-driven, but they say you should try to be process-driven as opposed to goal-driven,” Kovacevic continued. “This is a journey where you have to be both. Setting those goals of being a top-four defenseman and trying to be more established are the next steps for me, but along the way, I want to enjoy the process. I want to enjoy the highs and learn from the lows.”

So, with all the hard work, uncertainty, and mind-blowing resilience in perspective, is it all worth it?

“It’s way more than worth it,” Kovacevic said.” I wish everyone could live this life. It’s amazing.”

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About the Author

Rachael Millanta

Read More @rachaelmillanta

Rachael Millanta is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM focusing on Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Her work has been published in SB Nation, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Slackjaw Humor. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Rachael now resides in Chicago, Illinois.

Rachael Millanta is a Web Content Writer for BetMGM focusing on Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Her work has been published in SB Nation, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Slackjaw Humor. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Rachael now resides in Chicago, Illinois.