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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.

Preds hire Scuderi, Bordeleau, Rook as development coaches

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators have hired Rob Scuderi, Sebastien Bordeleau and Dave Rook as development coaches to help polish their prospects for the NHL.

General manager David Poile announced the hirings Tuesday. Scuderi will develop defensemen, with Bordeleau working with forwards and Rook with goaltenders. They will work with Scott Nichol, the Predators’ director of player development and general manager of their AHL franchise Milwaukee.

The 40-year-old Scuderi retired from the NHL in 2016 after 12 years and 783 career games with the Penguins, the Kings and Blackhawks, winning two Stanley Cups.

Bordeleau played three seasons with Predators from their start as an expansion franchise. He was skills coach for the Montreal Canadiens each of the last two seasons and this past season for the Canadiennes of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Rook has been a goaltending consultant for Nashville the past five seasons, helping Predators goalies Juuse Saros and Troy Groseneck. He was goaltending coach for Columbus between 2009 and 2011.

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

Trade: Flyers add Braun to blue line as Sharks shed salary

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One day after the San Jose Sharks handed Erik Karlsson $92 million over the next eight years, they shipped defenseman Justin Braun to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 2019 second-round pick (No. 41 overall) and a third-round selection in 2020.

“Justin has been an important part of our organization since we drafted him in 2007 and over that time, we have seen him develop not only as a player on the ice but as a man,” said Sharks general manager Doug Wilson in a statement. “He has played a large role in our team’s success since joining the Sharks roster, including appearing in three Conference Finals and competing for the Stanley Cup in 2016. I want to thank Justin and his wife, Jessie, for their commitment to the Sharks organization and wish them all the best in their future.”

In the wake of the Karlsson extension Wilson needed to shed some salary off the Sharks’ cap. This trade does that, freeing up $3.8M from their books for the 2019-20 NHL season. Braun has one year left on his deal and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Wilson and the Sharks now have a little over $16M in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to try and re-sign some of the team’s restricted free agents like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, and figure out what to do with UFAs Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist.

“Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said on Monday. “I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”

The Braun acquisition continues an aggressive off-season by Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher. In the span of a week he’s acquired the negotiating rights to pending UFA Kevin Hayes, swapped defensemen with the Washington Capitals by shipping Radko Gudas in exchange for Matt Niskanen, bought out Andrew MacDonald‘s contract, and now added Braun.

This now gives the Flyers a blue line with a left side featuring Ivan Provorov (RFA), Shayne Gostisbehere, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg, and Travis Sanheim (RFA). Who will be on the move out of that group? Judging by how some NHL GMs are talking this week, it could be a very busy summer of player movement.

“I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” Wilson said. “There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

MORE:
Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension
Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents
Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Lightning re-sign Coburn to $3.4M, 2-year deal

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning have re-signed defenseman Braydon Coburn to a $3.4 million, two-year deal.

Coburn will count $1.7 million against the salary cap in each of the next two seasons. General manager Julien BriseBois announced the contract Tuesday.

The 34-year-old had four goals and 19 assists in 74 games last season when he averaged 17:08 of ice time. Coburn took a $2 million annual pay cut from his last contract, which should help Tampa Bay remain among the NHL’s top Stanley Cup contenders.

Coburn has 228 points in 924 games with the Atlanta Thrashers, Philadelphia Flyers and Lightning. Tampa Bay acquired him in 2015.

This deal comes less than a day after two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson re-signed with San Jose. The Lightning were considered among the favorites to sign Karlsson if he became a free agent.

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

Sharks re-signing Karlsson sets table for busy NHL offseason

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Erik Karlsson had no wanderlust to test the free agent market before re-signing in San Jose.

”I never thought outside that box,” Karlsson said. ”I’m happy that it didn’t get to that.”

A handful of other teams aren’t so happy because the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman would have been the best unrestricted free agent available. Karlsson signing a $92 million, eight-year contract with the Sharks is the first big domino to fall since St. Louis won the Stanley Cup because of all the ramifications it could have on the NHL offseason.

With Karlsson off the board, any team looking for a No. 1 defenseman has to either hope veteran Alexander Edler doesn’t re-sign with the Canucks and win that bidding war or go the trade route. Salary-cap concerns for San Jose, Washington and a handful of other Cup contenders could open the door to some significant player movement even before free agency starts July 1.

”I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” San Jose’s Doug Wilson said Monday. ”There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

Already the Capitals have cleared cap space by trading defenseman Matt Niskanen to Philadelphia for Radko Gudas and used some of it to re-sign winger Carl Hagelin , the Islanders re-signed forward Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle , the Flyers acquired the rights to pending free agent Kevin Hayes from the Jets and the Rangers traded for Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba .

The trade talk is just heating up ahead of the draft Friday and Saturday in Vancouver. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang and Nashville’s P.K. Subban are among the high-profile players who could be on the move.

”There’s a lot of talk,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”There’s a lot of different names out there. There’s a lot of different ways to improve your team.”

Many of those moves will set the table for free agency, where Columbus winger Artemi Panarin, center Matt Duchene and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky are the top three players available.

Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner, Dallas winger Mats Zuccarello, Islanders winger Anders Lee, Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, Bruins winger Marcus Johansson and Hurricanes winger Micheal Ferland are among the other possibilities. The salary cap is expected to increase by $3.5 million to roughly $83 million, and money will be spent.

”It’s a pretty good class this year,” Colorado GM Joe Sakic said. ”(We) already have targeted players in mind if they become available that we’ll want to talk to about joining our club. We see positions of need, of what we’re looking to do. There’s a few guys we’re going to want to talk to if they become available. We’ll be more aggressive this year with that, but if it doesn’t work out with the players we want to talk to, we’re not just going to go spend on anybody.”

Sakic’s Avalanche have the most projected cap space in the league with $36 million, according to PuckPedia . The Flyers and rival New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Islanders will also have cap space to burn and a need for an elite defenseman or two.

”They’re not easy to find,” Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher said. ”Certainly, if we can find a guy that can play in our top four that we’d have the ability to acquire, we’ll certainly look at it.”

Karlsson was linked to the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, and it took less than a day for the first direct response to him re-signing with the Sharks. The Lightning on Tuesday re-signed veteran defenseman Braydon Coburn to a $3.4 million, two-year deal – cap space they likely would have needed for Karlsson if he was available.

BUT FIRST, THE DRAFT: New Jersey is widely expected to select American center Jack Hughes first overall, leaving Finnish winger Kaappo Kakko for the Rangers.

”Obviously one team’s going to indicate to us exactly how it might go for the rest of the draft,” Gorton said. ”I think we’re in a good spot. We know that we’re going to get a really good player no matter what happens to us.”

Chicago picks third and will get a nice boost to aid its turnaround after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.

BITE OUT OF SHARKS: Committing $11.5 million a year to Karlsson cuts significantly into San Jose’s offseason maneuvering with Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi set to be unrestricted free agents and emerging star Timo Meier needing a new contract as a restricted free agent.

”Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said, not ruling out bringing back Pavelski and others. ”I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”

RUSSIAN PACKAGE DEAL: Panarin and Bobrovsky played together with the Blue Jackets for two seasons and are hitting free agency at the same time. When Panarin switched agents to be represented by Bobrovsky’s agent, Paul Theofanus, it raised eyebrows that the Russian countrymen might want to go to the same team.

With some creative roster work, the Florida Panthers could be the ideal landing spot for Panarin and Bobrovsky and go from close to the playoffs to real contenders.

CAPITALS CONCERNS: Even though Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are no longer reigning Cup champions, Hagelin insisted he wouldn’t have signed an $11 million, four-year contract with them if he didn’t think they could win it again over that time. To do so, GM Brian MacLellan will have to navigate a difficult cap situation around pending free agent winger Brett Connolly and restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky and knowing deals with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby expire next summer.

”I hope (Connolly and Burakovsky are) still here,” Hagelein said. ”But at the end of the day, Conno, he’s a UFA so it’s up to him what he wants. You understand if a guy tests the market to see what’s out there. But I hope both of those guys come back.”

AP Sports Writers Pat Graham and Josh Dubow contributed to this report.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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