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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.

Which teams need to add a goalie this summer?

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Free agency is just days away and teams have already begun talking to potential unrestricted free agents about joining their club. Franchise players don’t often hit the open market, but it looks like a superstar netminder could make it to July 1st.

Sergei Bobrovsky will likely test free agency and unless something unexpected happens, it appears as though he’ll be leaving the Columbus Blue Jackets. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve probably heard that the Florida Panthers are the front-runners for his services.

Whether Bobrovsky goes to Florida or not, there will only be one franchise goaltender available in free agency but there are several teams that need to add a goaltender before the start of next season. Some teams need to upgrade their starting netminder, but most simply need to add a backup that can help win them games.

Let’s take a look at which teams could stand to add a body between the pipes this summer.

Buffalo Sabres: Carter Hutton got off to a great start last year, but he fall apart in a hurry. The Sabres have to find a proven starting netminder if they’re going to turn this thing around. Will they be able to attract a quality free agent or will they need to pull the trigger on a trade?

Calgary Flames: Veteran Mike Smith will be a free agent on July 1st and David Rittich needs a new contract too (he’s a restricted free agent). Rittich will probably be back, but they could use another proven commodity between the pipes if they’re going to be serious about winning the Western Conference.

•  Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, which was very surprising. But both goalies are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st and the ‘Canes need a capable starter to replace them should they go elsewhere. Carolina acquired Anton Forsberg from Chicago on Monday, but he’s nothing more than a backup goalie at this point.

• Colorado Avalanche: Getting Philipp Grubauer from Washington last year proved to be a great move by general manager Joe Sakic. Now, he has to make sure he gets a capable backup goalie to add to this group assuming Semyon Varlamov doesn’t come back.

Columbus Blue Jackets: If Bobrovsky walks, they need to make sure they land a goalie that can help get them back into the playoff picture. Losing him isn’t going to be an easy pill to swallow.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers gave Miro Koskinen a three-year extension during the last season so whether Oilers fans like him or not, he’s probably going to be the starter heading into 2019-20. If that’s in fact the case, they need a capable backup goalie to play roughly 30 contests.

Florida Panthers: We already mentioned the Panthers earlier on in this post, so it’s obvious that they have a need. Roberto Luongo can’t stay healthy and James Reimer isn’t a starting goaltender. They need to do everything they can to make sure they can close a deal with Bobrovsky as soon as possible. This is a huge need for them.

Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price is the clear-cut starter in Montreal. Will they roll with Charlie Lindgren as his backup or will they opt for a more experienced netminder. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them bring in a free agent, especially given Price’s injury history.

New York Islanders: Robin Lehner was arguably the biggest surprise of the 2018-19 season. The Isles netminder was a Vezina Trophy finalist, but his contract expires on July 1st. Thomas Greiss has one year remaining on his deal. Greiss can be a 1B goalie, so the Isles would need to add 40 to 50 starts if Lehner decides to go elsewhere next week.

Philadelphia Flyers: Carter Hart was impressive during a 31-game stint during his rookie season, but Brian Elliott, Cam Talbot and Michal Neuvirth are all scheduled to become free agents on July 1st. The Flyers need to make sure they find a veteran to play behind Hart.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs didn’t trust Garret Sparks to get the job done as Frederik Andersen‘s backup down the stretch last season, so what makes them think he could give them 20-25 good starts next year? They probably won’t have the cap space to add a quality backup goalie though.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Brooks Orpik retires after 15 seasons, two Stanley Cups

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Forwards around the NHL will have one less bruising defenseman to worry about heading into next season.

On Tuesday morning, Washington Capitals blueliner Brooks Orpik announced his retirement from the NHL. After being drafted in the first round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Orpik went on to play 15 seasons with the Pens and Caps.

The 38-year-old scored 18 goals and 194 points in 1035 games. He also added 972 penalty minutes during that time. Orpik skated in 156 more games in the postseason and he won two Stanley Cup titles (one with the Pens and one with the Caps).

After missing just four games in two seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the veteran managed to skate in just 53 contests last season because of a lower-body injury.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to have the best job in the world for many years, but my body is telling me it is time to move on to something new,” Orpik said in a team release. “I’m excited for more family time and to experience a lot of the things that being a professional athlete forces you to miss out on. Thank you to the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for giving me the opportunity to play against the best athletes in the world. I’ll be forever grateful for the memories and relationships that hockey has given me.”

On the international stage, he also represented Team USA on several occasions. He played for his country 2000 World Junior Hockey Championship, the 2006 World Hockey Championship and at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympic Games (he won a silver medal with that 2010 team).

“I had the great opportunity to see up close how impactful Brooks was for our team. Spending time as his defensive partner and playing alongside Brooks was something that I will always cherish,” said Caps defenseman John Carlson. “He showed his teammates the importance of hard work, accountability and always being there for your team every time he stepped on the ice. We all learned from Brooks; he was our role model and he made us better. I wish him and his family all the best!”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Waiting on Marner; Marleau wants to play past 40

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• With Marner unknown, Maple Leafs won’t be in ‘big-game market’ come July 1, GM Dubas says. (NHL.com)

Patrick Marleau, 39, believes he can play past the 2019-20 season. (NHL.com)

• For the Rangers, it may come down to Chris Kreider or Artemi Panarin, and not both. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• Trying to decipher Jim Rutherford’s offseason messages. (Pensburgh)

J.T. Miller trade the result of Vancouver’s past draft failures. (TSN.ca)

• It’s time for the NHL to expand it’s 3-on-3 overtime rules. (Oilers Nation)

• Evaluating where things stand for Blackhawks as negotiating window opens for NHL free agents. (NBC Chicago Sports)

• The trade market and Subban: the Flyers’ impatience may have cost them this offseason. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Seattle’s coming NHL has its first sponsor. (Seattle Times)

• Re-imagining the 1994 NHL Draft 25 years on. (Puck Junk)

• In Lou Lamoriello. you should trust, Islanders fans. (Eyes on Isles)

• Growing the game… in Montana. (Daily Inter Lake)

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Trade: Blackhawks continue defense overhaul, get de Haan from Hurricanes

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Defense was a huge issue for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2018-19 season and they are already making some moves this summer to try and address it.

That continued on Monday evening when the team announced it has acquired Calvin de Haan and forward Aleksei Saarela from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Gustav Forsling and goalie Anton Forsberg.

The Hurricanes signed de Haan to a four-year, $18.2 million contract in free agency a year ago. Known more for his defensive play than anything offensively, he played in 74 games for the Hurricanes this past season, scoring one goal to go with 13 assists. He underwent shoulder surgery after the season and is facing a four-to-six month recovery time, so he may not be ready at the start of the season.

His addition to the Blackhawks’ blue line comes a little more than one week after the team traded forward Dominik Kahun to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Olli Maatta.

de Haan and Maatta join a Blackhawks team that was one of the league’s worst defensive teams at 5-on-5, finishing in the bottom-10 in goals against, shots against, shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes, via Natural Stat Trick.

In several of those categories they were among the bottom-three teams in the league. It is obviously an area that needed to be addressed as longtime staples Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook continue to age and their younger prospects continue to get their feet wet in the NHL.

Maatta and de Haan are not superstars, and neither one is going to provide much in the way of point production, but they can definitely help in their own end of the ice.

As for the Hurricanes side of this, clearing salary cap space appears to be the name of the game (perhaps the sign of another move coming?) as moving de Haan sheds more than $4 million in cap space over each of the next three seasons.

Forsberg and Forsling are both restricted free agents this summer.

Forsling, 23, has spent three years in the NHL with the Blackhawks and recorded 27 points in 122 career games. Given the state of Carolina’s blue line even after trading de Haan he still probably only figures to be, at best, a third-pairing defender.

Forsberg is the player that could get the biggest opportunity. The Hurricanes could buy out the remainder of Scott Darling’s contract at any time, while the duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney from this past season are both eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

The 26-year-old Forsberg has appeared in 45 NHL games with the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets, recording a .901 save percentage.

Related
Penguins trade Olli Maatta to Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun, draft pick

Hurricanes get Marleau from Maple Leafs, could buy him out

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.