LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ilya Kovalchuk has an Olympic gold medal but he is back in the NHL to add the one thing missing from his stellar career – a Stanley Cup.
Ironically, Kovalchuk’s return to the league is with the Los Angeles Kings, who denied him a chance to win a title in 2012 when they beat the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final.
Kovalchuk will make his Kings debut Friday when they open the season hosting San Jose. It will be the 35-year old Russian’s first NHL game in five seasons.
”I went back to Russia to try and win the Olympics but this is a new challenge,” Kovalchuk said following Kings practice earlier this week. ”I feel like I have some gas left in my tank and I’m excited for the challenge.”
Kovalchuk signed a three-year, $18.75 million deal with Los Angeles after five seasons playing for SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League, where he led the league in scoring twice and won two championships.
What Kovalchuk takes bigger pride in, though, is leading the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” to a gold medal in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He was named the MVP of the Olympic tournament with five goals and two assists.
When it comes to Kovalchuk assessing where he feels his game is at, he acknowledges that it remains a work in progress.
”I’ll have a better idea how things are going after the first game,” Kovalchuk said. ”Conditioning-wise I feel good. It will take some time to understand how much the game has changed. It’s a challenge.”
Kings coach John Stevens placed Kovalchuk on different lines trying to find the right combination. He played mostly left wing and had a goal and an assist in four preseason games.
Injuries to Dustin Brown (finger), Jonny Brodzinski (shoulder) and Gabriel Vilardi (back) will have Kovalchuk moving to right wing on the Kings’ top line with Anze Kopitar at center and Alex Iafallo at left wing.
Stevens said Iafallo and Kopitar’s skills as forecheckers and passers should blend well with Kovalchuk’s reputation of being one of the most consistent scorers in the game.
”He’s known for his shot, but I think he’s an elite playmaker as well,” Stevens said. ”I think they need to continue to spend time together, but I certainly see some chemistry in what they’re doing out there and how they read off each other.”
Stevens was not pleased with the Kings’ 1-6-1 preseason record, but he has noticed his veteran club increasing its intensity with the regular season starting.
”Obviously, we didn’t play the way we wanted to but have so many veteran guys and know what it takes. We are confident in ourselves,” Kovalchuk said. ”The preseason games have given us time to adjust to the system and get our legs going.”
Los Angeles signed Kovalchuk to inject scoring into a team that has struggled putting pucks into the net. The Kings averaged 2.89 goals per game last season, which was 16th, and their 155 goals in five-on-five situations was the third-lowest of a playoff team.
They also severely lacked scoring depth with only four players who scored 16 goals or more. Only Arizona and Edmonton had fewer skaters, with three apiece.
During 11 seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers and the Devils, Kovalchuk had 816 points – including 417 goals – in 816 games.
Kopitar – who is coming off a career-best 92-point season – is hoping Kovalchuk can be the vital piece that allows the Kings to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
”He fits in very well. He’s a high-scoring winger, he’s proven that everywhere. We’re hoping he provides the same thing for us,” Kopitar said.
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