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Under Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Since 2013-14, Ilya Kovalchuk has been plying his trade in the KHL instead of the NHL. Really, with the year before including the abysmal, lockout-shortened campaign, we haven’t really seen much of Kovalchuk at this level since helping the Devils reach the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.

For fans of beautiful hockey, such thoughts are borderline offensive.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough]

That said, Kovalchuk gave fans a lot to enjoy over 816 NHL regular-season games, even if many of those contests happened on some crummy Atlanta Thrashers teams. While there’s a lot of “what could have been?” with Kovalchuk, it’s also fitting that he left the NHL with exactly as many points (816) as games played.

The Los Angeles Kings make a lot of sense as the team he’ll return to the NHL with, too.

Most obviously, and also the point of most pressure, is that the Kings need Kovalchuk. They really need a shot in the arm, so landing arguably the most lethal shooter of his generation might just do that.

Yes, the Kings surprised many by making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even with Jeff Carter – the closest player they had to a Kovalchukian sniper – mostly on the shelf in 2017-18.

That’s great, but it only does so much to mask recent struggles. After all, the Kings were swept from the first round, have only won one playoff game since winning the 2014 Stanley Cup, and have missed the postseason altogether in two of the last four seasons.

Kovalchuk and the Kings are bonded by a scary question: “How much do they have left?”

The good news is that Kovalchuk performed well during his KHL sojourn, and seemed to be his usual self in international competition. Still, the aging curve can be especially unkind to snipers, and Kovalchuk’s a 35-year-old who’s been playing a lot of hockey considering he jumped straight from being the top pick of the 2001 NHL Draft to full-time duty with Atlanta in 2001-02.

At least his confidence hasn’t wavered all that much, as PHT’s Sean Leahy noted after Kovalchuk came to terms with the Kings.

“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has a great group of guys. Like I said, great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great.”

The situation he’ll be in with the Kings could make a big impact on how seamless his transition back to the NHL might be.

During Kovalchuk’s days with the Devils, he’d log a jaw-dropping amount of ice time (we’re talking “deployment usually reserved for top defensemen”-type stuff), and that would often mean spending tons of time playing the point on the power play. Los Angeles seems to have a simple-and-wise plan for Kovalchuk, considering his age and world-class shot: put him in Alex Ovechkin‘s “office.”

“We just want him to do exactly what [Alex] Ovechkin does,” Luc Robitaille said to The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman during draft weekend (sub required).

While we’ll have to see if it works in practice, this is a really bright idea on paper.

Speaking of things that make sense, at least in our minds, Kovalchuk and Anze Kopitar could form a symbiotic relationship that could pay big dividends for the Kings.

Kopitar would rank as Kovalchuk’s best center in ages, if ever, at the NHL level. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk presents a dramatic skill boost for Kopitar, who put up an incredible effort lugging Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo last season.

(All due respect to Brown’s bounce-back efforts and Iafallo’s scrappy work, but Kovalchuk presents a tantalizing upgrade. Ideally.)

Kovalchuk’s contract is another interesting element to this situation.

He could very well be a huge bargain, considering his skills at a fairly modest $6.25 million cap hit. Kovalchuk surely could have held out for more dollars, particularly on a shorter contract, but he made it clear that he wanted to compete too. (Granted, the sunny climes of Los Angeles probably didn’t hurt, either.)

On the other hand, Kovalchuk counts as a 35+ contract, so this could get ugly if it’s clear that the NHL game passed him by in a stark way.

If onlookers give Kovalchuk a fair shake as a talented player whose age will probably limit his all-around abilities, and maybe open the door for the normally-sturdy winger to maybe deal with the occasional injury, then this could be a happy marriage.

Talented players like Kovalchuk often open the door for out-sized expectations, and harsh criticisms, however, so this one could go either way.

Whatever happens, Kovalchuk makes this Kings team a lot more intriguing in 2018-19.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trade deadline buyers should beware of Ferland

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Despite plenty of their fans wanting to keep the bruising pending free agent, the Carolina Hurricanes are likely to trade Micheal Ferland, according to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic.

LeBrun places a potential price tag for a Ferland trade as a first-round pick and a prospect.

On paper, that’s a totally sensible move for a contender to make, with LeBrun adding the Pittsburgh Penguins to the list of potential suitors.

For one thing, Ferland is super-cheap in 2018-19. The 26-year-old only carries a $1.75 million cap hit, so a contending team could easily make Ferland merely part of a shopping spree, at least from the perspective of being under the $79.5M upper limit.

Depending upon the quality of the prospect, that potential trade is pretty reasonable for a solid rental. Ferland is coming off of a 21-goal season from 2017-18, and with 13 goals in just 40 games, is on an even better pace (.33 per game) in 2018-19. Just as enticingly, Ferland is the sort of rugged presence that teams believe they need for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Considering some of the prices in previous years – the Predators giving up their first rounder for Ryan Hartman, the bucket of picks Vegas sent for Tomas Tatar – Ferland could be a nice find.

But this is a “buyer beware” situation, at least depending upon the potential plans of a would-be buyer.

Tom Wilson money”

Yes, Ferland is dirt-cheap today, but a team would be wise not to sign Ferland to an extension before seeing him play.

For one thing, there’s a Tom Wilson comparison that might inflate his market value. During a recent edition of Hockey Night in Canada, Nick Kypreos reported that Ferland is looking for Wilson-type money for his next deal. That would mean a six-year contract in the $31M range, or at least something coming in around a $5.167M cap hit.

There’s no denying that Wilson is having a career season, even with that hefty suspension in mind. His 13 goals puts him one behind last season’s career-high of 14 in 78 games, even though Wilson’s only played in 29 this year. Even so, Wilson’s on a five-game pointless drought, and his 20.6 shooting percentage indicates that he’ll be cooling down a bit more.

So, the market’s already inflated for a physical winger who can score. There’s also slight concern over Ferland’s scoring.

Nature vs. nurture

One thing certainly helping Wilson rise up the scoring ranks is his linemates, as he’s been regularly skating with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom.

That alignment makes great sense for the Capitals for a number of reasons, including the fact that they already paid Wilson, anyway.

But a would-be buyer should be cautious about extending Ferland for the simple reason that he’s basically had nothing but outstanding linemates during the past two seasons, when he’s generated far and away his best numbers.

Last season, he was glued to Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, a pairing that’s boosted Elias Lindholm to easily the best work of his career. As you can see from Natural Stat Trick, he’s frequently lining up on Carolina’s best line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, too.

Now, it says a lot about Ferland that he can hang with such high-level forwards. Plenty of other players have squandered opportunities with players like Gaudreau and Aho.

Still, if a team is investing in Ferland beyond 2018-19, it’s fair to wonder how Ferland would handle being the top guy on a lesser line, or otherwise show that he’s worth that Wilson-type money.

After all, it’s not as though Ferland’s lighting opponents on fire. Generating 25 points in 40 games this season, and 21 goals (and 41 points) in 2017-18 is promising, and fantastic value at $1.75M per season.

Would he really be worth something in the $5M range?

That question might only really matter when the free agent frenzy kicks in during July, but there’s no guarantee that a trade partner wouldn’t also be eager to keep Ferland around longer term.

***

There are risks involved even in giving up that first-round pick and prospect, but it’s easy to see why someone would want to at least rent Ferland. A longer lease option could be quite costly, though, so potential teams should really be careful here.

Considering how things have gone for the likes of James Neal, Patrick Maroon, and Milan Lucic, sometimes it’s dangerous to invest in power forwards, even when they’re well-marketed like Ferland seems to be.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Time to feel old: NHL players take ’80s, ’90s quiz

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If you’re trying to get NHL players to show some personality, you could do worse than to bring up TV and movies. Especially if you’re not allowed to ask them to do “The Floss.”

Of course, you do run the risk of feeling like a nerd. Actually, scratch that: you’ll probably end up feeling like an old nerd.

Luckily, it’s worth the risk and such feelings, at least in the case of the NHL’s “Puck Personality” video, where players of various ages are quizzed on pop culture from nostalgic TV shows and movies.

A few stray thoughts:

  • Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Chris Kreider seemed to do quite well.
  • “Older” players stood out, too. Nicely done, Eric Staal.
  • Max Domi‘s plus/minus on this one: not great.
  • The “I was born in 199x” segment was painful, and that’s only going to get worse once kids from the 2018 NHL Draft end up in more of these. Actually, that’s my only beef with this vid: why not ask Rasmus Dahlin if he knows any of those references?
  • The “Full House”-style interstitials and effects were a great touch. Wonderful work overall from the NHL. Speaking of that, this extended credits sequence is great, and evokes a little bit of “Too Many Cooks.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Here they go again: Panthers hoping for late-season surge

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By Time Reynolds (AP Sports Writer)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers are hoping for deja vu.

Sort of.

A year ago, the Panthers shook off a disastrous start to the season and caught fire after the All-Star break – only to miss the playoffs by a single point. This year, they’re heading into the break on a three-game winning streak and playing perhaps their best hockey of the season after spending the first three months of the year sputtering near the bottom of the NHL.

So here they go again, trying for another late and improbable playoff push.

”We have that confidence back, that swagger,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said after a 6-2 win over San Jose on Monday night.

They’ll need more than swagger.

The Panthers were 24-8-2 in the final 34 games last season, getting 50 of a possible 68 points down the stretch. This year, with 34 games left when they return to the ice on Feb. 1, they’ll need a similar run. Florida is 10 points out of the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, and 11 points from catching Boston for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot out of the Atlantic Division.

”I think we are starting to turn the corner,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. ”We have a long way to go.”

As unlikely as it seems – especially for the Panthers, an often-woebegone franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 – there is a potential path to the postseason.

Florida (20-20-8) has 12 games between Feb. 1 and Feb. 23, and 11 of those are on home ice. That’s the good news. The flip side is this: Of those 12, eight are against teams that are currently in the top half of the NHL, including matchups with Tampa Bay, Nashville, Washington, Pittsburgh and Vegas quickly after the All-Star break ends.

”It’s nice to be back to feeling the way I like to feel and the confidence is there,” said Luongo, who has won consecutive starts for the first time in more than a month. ”The guys are playing well in front of me. It’s a two-way street. When the guys play well I feel good and when I feel good the guys play well.”

There is a clear urgency, and it started last week with the team on what was then a seven-game losing skid.

Florida was without Vincent Trocheck for 27 games after he broke his right ankle in November. When he returned to practice last week, the Panthers’ plan was to keep him out until after the break in order to make sure he was fully ready to go.

Trocheck successfully argued otherwise. Not only did he play in three games since returning to practice – in a four-day span, no less – the Panthers went 3-0-0 in those games, clearly sparked by his comeback.

”We’re having fun,” said Trocheck, who has two goals and two assists since returning. ”It’s fun to win some hockey games. It’s been tough for us this year in that department. To go into a break like this with a little bit of momentum, having some fun, it’s going to make a big difference for the second half.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins look to stay healthy after mid-winter break

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By Matt Kalman (Associated Press)

BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins almost made it into their mid-winter break completely healthy.

Forward Joakim Nordstrom is recovering from a fractured lower leg and goaltender Tuukka Rask is dealing with a concussion sustained against the New York Rangers on Saturday. Otherwise, the Bruins’ lineup from the start of the season was on the ice when they completed their 49th game with a 3-2 loss to the Rangers.

A nearly full complement of players had the Bruins excited about what they could accomplish after the break. They’re in third place (27-17-5) behind Tampa Bay and Toronto in the Atlantic Division despite fighting injuries throughout the first half.

”I think we can continue to build on some of the success we had in the beginning of the season,” said defenseman Kevan Miller, who missed 26 games because of injuries. ”We think we still have some areas in our game that we need to work on. But I think the break will help a little bit, some guys get their legs.”

The eight-day vacation, which combines the NHL-mandated break and the NHL All-Star break, possibly came at just the right time because of Rask’s head injury. He was bowled over by Rangers forward Filip Chytil in the midst of the wing scoring a goal on an end-to-end rush in the first period on Saturday.

Rask is 14-8-3 with a .919 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against this season and has formed an impressive goaltending tandem with Jaroslav Halak. He signed as an unrestricted free agent last summer and is 13-9-2 with a .919 save percentage and 2.47 GAA. When Rask struggled early in the season and took a four-day leave of absence to attend to a personal matter, Halak carried the load. Rask has returned the favor after Halak struggled in the weeks leading up to the break.

Their performances were a big reason the Bruins overcame their injury issues, including a 16-game absence of four-time Selke Trophy-winning center Patrice Bergeron and 19 games without captain Zdeno Chara. The Bruins are tied for second place in the NHL at 2.61 goals allowed per game.

”Our goaltending . they’ve been healthy, a balanced workload,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You look at the numbers, they’re almost identical now. So you’re getting a chance to win every night.”

Cassidy noted their back-to-back record has been good – finishing 6-1-1 in the second game.

”Guys pick each other up around here,” he said. ”So they understand if someone, a major part of the lineup is out, they’ve got to pick it up.”

More than a week off between games could give Rask and others a chance to heal up for the stretch run and could prevent an unfortunate slide in the standings. The Bruins followed a 6-1-0 stretch with a 1-2-1 record before the break, including regulation losses to the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, teams 10 points or more behind them in the standings.

Boston ranks just 17th in goals scored per game (2.90) and leans a bit too much on its second-ranked power play (27.2 percent).

”I thought we had some really good games,” Chara said. ”You know we had some games we could’ve played better, but overall I think we’re in a good position going into the break. It’s always very important to play better and keep improving the closer you get to the playoffs. You demand to play the best hockey.”