Sorting out the sad mess between Kovalchuk, Kings

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Even at 35, the only logical explanation for Ilya Kovalchuk playing just six minutes and 20 seconds for the moribund Los Angeles Kings would be that he was hurt.

OK, if it was later in the season – in an alternate universe where this team is … good – maybe the Kings would be resting Kovalchuk heading into the postseason. Instead, still-new Kings head coach Willie Desjardins admitted that it was a coach’s decision during Los Angeles’ 5-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday.

LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen passes along quotes where both sides are straining to say as close to the right things as possible.

“I don’t know how to be on the bench because that’s the first time in my career I sat there for the third period, but I’m that kind of guy – I don’t care, we were winning, and that’s all that matters,” Kovalchuk said.

You can practically feel Kovalchuk saying those things through gritted teeth, and Desjardins’ comments got pretty weird, as if he’s expecting Kovalchuk to snap at any moment.

” … He’s in a tough one,” Desjardins said. “He’s got to score on his chances, he’s got to create some offense, but like I said before, when I call his name, he’s excited to go. It hasn’t happened yet that I’ve called him and he’s like kind of where he doesn’t care. That’s a good sign. That’s a tough role for a guy that’s played so well in the NHL. That’s a tough role for him.”

Look, Kovalchuk isn’t perfect. No one could reasonably expect that from him at his age, particularly on a struggling team that’s playing a style that simply isn’t in rhythm with an NHL that’s getting faster and more skilled.

But that “we won the game” shield is flimsy for a team that’s solidly last in the league in standings points, and it’s patently absurd that such an offense-needy group isn’t finding every excuse to get Kovalchuk on the ice.

And, uh, judging by his linemates (Nate Thompson and Sheldon Rempal, who is not a created player in NHL 19 franchise mode), it sounds like things aren’t thawing out just yet.

Even with this nine-game pointless drought in mind, Kovalchuk remains tied for the Kings’ scoring lead alongside Drew Doughty with 14 points.

Just about every number feels like a flashing sign pointing to the Kings leaning more on Kovalchuk (or trading Kovalchuk), not less. Consider that:

  • Their power play success rate is an abysmal 15.3 percent, the fourth-worst mark in the NHL so far in 2018-19.
  • The Kings’ 50 goals scored ranks last in the league, and their 2.17 goals-per-game average is only better than their pals in Anaheim.
  • Sure, Los Angeles often marches to the slow beat of its own drum, which used to mean hogging the puck. That’s not really working out so well, as they’re allowing three more shots per game (31.2) than they’re generating (28.1).
  • Maybe Desjardins was placed in a position to fail with the Vancouver Canucks, but his reputation as “Whiteboard Willie” didn’t exactly remain ironclad. We’re talking about a coach who only saw one Canucks team make the playoffs in three seasons, and never won a playoff series. His current coaching record is under .500 (113-116-27). Should a lame duck coach really be estranging such an important player, and for what sure looks like minimal-at-best gains?
  • More on those minimal gains: it really might be true that the Kings’ best chance to win is to play low-event hockey, which likely wouldn’t mean optimizing Kovalchuk. (Although, even then, he could have some use on the power play and in offensive zone starts.) But, really, what’s the ceiling on such a gameplan for the Kings? At some point you’re just fighting against reality.

The trading question

Honestly, if I were in Kovalchuk’s position or running the Kings, a trade seems like it would be the wisest idea for both sides. Sometimes it’s best just to admit that you made a mistake and call for a mulligan.

Simply put, the Kings could very well scrounge together a respectable bid for a playoff berth, but you’d really need to be sipping the Kool-Aid to believe that this aging bunch really has a shot at the Stanley Cup. Just about everything broke the Kings’ way in 2017-18, and that run ended with them getting absolutely smoked by the Vegas Golden Knights.

(That was a tight series scoring-wise, but my goodness did the Kings ever look overmatched.)

Kovalchuk is staring down the barrel of a nightmare situation: playing on a bad team and possibly warming the bench for the first time in his career.

Now, it’s undeniable that Kovalchuk chose the Kings as his free agent destination, and probably for reasons beyond winning. While Kovalchuk isn’t getting Lebron James’ marketing opportunities, the friendly weather of Los Angeles likely weighed heavily in Kovalchuk’s thought process.

Even a hit-or-miss coach like Desjardins will probably get the memo and play Kovalchuk at a more respectable level soon, too. At minimum, management should demand as much, even if a trade ends up happening. You don’t exactly want to flatten his value altogether, do you?

With a full no-movement clause through the first two seasons and the option of providing a seven-team list in 2020-21 (via Cap Friendly), it would be Kovalchuk’s call to accept a trade. A potential team would carry the additional risks of Kovalchuk’s deal being a 35+ contract, too.

But, really, why wouldn’t Kovalchuk want to shake the Etch-a-Sketch here? This is a miserable situation that might not get much worse, and there are other teams with better chances of contending and warmer climates. Heck, if the former Atlanta Thrasher were to land with another Sunbelt team, he’d be able to keep a larger portion of that $6.25M cap hit.

The Kings should be looking to the future as much as possible, and dealing Kovalchuk – again, if he wanted it – could really allow them to stockpile some assets.

Consider a scenario where the Kings take on a bad contract to make a Kovalchuk trade work, with the bonus being a better return? What if the Kings took David Clarkson‘s contract off of Vegas’ hands, offered the Flyers a jolt of life while absorbing Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M, or allowed the Penguins to admit that the Jack Johnson signing was a free agent flub of their own?

The organization seems ready to make more changes, as Elliotte Friedman briefly alluded to in the latest edition of “31 Thoughts” for Sportsnet:

11. Last week, I reported that Los Angeles wanted to see how things changed after hiring Willie Desjardins and trading Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin. That patience has expired.

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None of this is to say that a Kovalchuk trade is necessarily pressing or likely. He may simply refuse to play anywhere else. Considering his age, Kovalchuk might just want to stay put.

Imagining him in other places is fun, especially when no one’s having fun in this current L.A. situation.

One thing’s clear: if Desjardins really wants to keep this job for a while, he better press the right buttons with Kovalchuk and others. So far … not so good.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

P.K. Subban, NHL make $100K donation to fund for George Floyd’s daughter

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P.K. Subban has announced a $50,000 donation to the GoFundMe page for George Floyd’s daughter and added that the NHL is matching that amount.

The Devils defenseman took to social media to add to the voices around hockey speaking up about Floyd’s death last week.

“What does ‘change the game’ mean? ‘Change the game’ means change the narrative,” Subban said. “The narrative has been the same — no justice. There needs to be justice. Justice has to happen; change needs to come, but we need everyone. We need everyone and all people to look at our lives and see where we can help that change and do our part. I’m committed to that. I’m committed to that through and through.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the fund for six-year-old Gianna Floyd is nearing $900,000 from over 26,000 donors.

[NHLers speak out on death of George Floyd, U.S. protests]

In 2015, Subban, while a member of the Canadiens, made a $10 million pledge to the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Other NHLers helping out

Subban wasn’t the only NHLer going good on Wednesday. Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins announced a $25,000 donation to the Boston branch of the NAACP as well as $25,000 to Centre Multiethnique de Quebec.

Capitals forward Tom Wilson Tweeted that he’ll be donating to East Of The River Mutual Aid Fund as well as to the Fort Dupont Cannons Hockey Program.

Finally, Andrei Svechnikov lent a hand to the Wake County Boys and Girls club. The Hurricanes forward donated 2,500 disposable masks and 25 5.25-gallon containers of hand sanitizers for COVID-19 relief efforts.

For more on the George Floyd protests around the U.S., follow the NBC News live blog.

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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.

Will 2020 Stanley Cup be the toughest ever to win?

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During the latest episode of “Our Line Starts,” Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might just be the toughest to ever win.

However you feel about that, others argued similarly. Back in mid-April, Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty also argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might require the most from players.

“I think this will be the hardest Stanley Cup to win out of all of them,” Pacioretty told Gary Lawless of the Golden Knights’ website. “Look at all the obstacles. Who knows when we’re going to play, where, fans or no fans, everything is up in the air …”

Again, Pacioretty made that observation in April, before the NHL announced its return-to-play plans. Jones and Sharp argued their point with more information about the process. The larger arguments remain pretty similar, though.

Of course, as Jones and others also note, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear. Laying out a play to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup doesn’t mean you’ll reach that destination.

But Pacioretty and others provide some room for debate. Could a run for the 2020 Stanley Cup prove to be the toughest of them all?

How a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup could be especially difficult

While the sheer uncertainty of the situation provides the best fodder, you could also lean on the nitty gritty details. Consider how difficult the path could be for a Qualifying Round team trying to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Said team would jump into a high-stakes, best-of-five series with a potentially dangerous opponent. Only then would they make the typical “Round of 16” you’d associate with the postseason.

The NHL hasn’t announced how long each (traditionally best-of-seven) First Round and Second Round series would be. However, we do know that the league aims for best-of-seven series during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, along with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

So … yeah, that could present a treacherous path. Especially for teams in that Qualifying Round, but Round Robin teams like Pacioretty’s Golden Knights wouldn’t have it easy, either. And that’s before we get into the logistics of living in a hub city, potentially away from family, friends, and other comforts.

NHL seasons have faced other extraordinary/unusual challenges

Yes, these are strange times — in some ways, unprecedented — but the NHL’s seen other serious challenges.

As you may know, the league faced serious disruption from another epidemic. The 1919 Stanley Cup was not awarded thanks to “The Spanish Flu.” (Gare Joyce recently looked back at that, and how it may illuminate the league’s struggles with COVID-19, for Sportsnet.)

If the NHL manages to award the 2020 Stanley Cup, it won’t be alone in the league forging on during tough moments. Back in 2017, Stan Fischler looked back at the NHL operating during World War II, and all of the challenges that ensued.

Each team had many players who were on active service during the war. In hockey’s “Victory Lineup” at the start of the 1942-43 season, the Boston Bruins had 16 players, the Canadiens 11, the Chicago Black Hawks seven, the Brooklyn Americans eight, the Detroit Red Wings eight, the New York Rangers 19 and the Maple Leafs 14.

Pacioretty himself weighed the significant challenges of going for the 2020 Stanley Cup with some unusual advantages. Most obviously, players will be as healthy as they’ve ever been this late in a season.

Considering how people often complain of rigorous travel, one perk of the “hub city” system would involve far more limited movement. (From a quality of life standpoint, that’s probably mostly negative. Players would prefer to see friends and family, and the comforts of home. But still, it’s worth at least mentioning in passing.)

2020 Stanley Cup not the only unusual circumstance

Thanks to lockouts and/or lockout-shortened seasons, we’ve also seen players enter postseasons in less typical circumstances. Sure, some will worry that the 2020 Stanley Cup winner might get the “asterisk treatment.” There are people who probably still discredit, say, the 2005-06 Hurricanes for winning it all during an unusual season.

Overall, Jones, Sharp, and Pacioretty all have decent larger points. The sheer uncertainty of this situation should make it difficult. That’s especially true for the NHL players who are most aptly “creatures of habit.”

Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman candidly spoke about the many obstacles the NHL faces in determining a 2020 Stanley Cup winner while managing risks. It won’t be easy to win it all, but then again, it rarely is, right?

Check out the full episode of “Our Line Starts” below:

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.

Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away

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As the NHL moves towards resuming play this summer, the league must first narrow down the list of hub cities.

When Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s Return to Play plan last week, he noted 10 cities in the U.S. and Canada are under consideration. Two will be chosen with the strong likelihood one will also host the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

First, here are the 10 cities in the running:

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

Appearing on the Ray & Dregs podcast, Bettman gave an update on the process.

“I’m going to probably have to make a decision collectively on this probably in three weeks,” he said on the May 28th episode. “I think in two weeks we’ll start narrowing down further. Somewhere around three weeks we’re going to have to pull the trigger and finalize the arrangements and make the deposits.”

Standing out

In order to play host, a hub city will need secure hotels, facilities for games and practices, and good transportation. Most importantly, there will need to be low COVID-19 case rates, cooperation from local government, and the availability for mass testing.

The three Canadian cities face the biggest challenges. The government has a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering the country. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said discussions are “on-going” between public health officials and the NHL.

How badly does Edmonton want in? Alberta premier Jason Kenney sent a request to Trudeau asking that NHL personnel be exempt from travel and quarantine restrictions to improve their chances.

Vegas, baby, Vegas

Meanwhile, Las Vegas has emerged as a favorite. Nevada is about to enter Phase Two this week, with businesses and casinos set to reopen. That’s a huge boost for the city’s chances given the amount of available hotels. The lack of ice sheets compared to other cities could be helped by the installation of additional surfaces, reported The Athletic last week. The total package is a reason why the conference finals and Cup Final could also take place there.

Host cities with a team involved, however, may not get to root them on. The league may put them in the other hub city or, if they do stay home, the players would have to follow the NHL’s guidelines. “[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said.

The NHL is expected to move into Phase 2 this week with players in small groups doing voluntary non-contact skating and off-ice training. The next step would be training camps opening up no earlier than July 10 and a possible resumption of the season by early August.

MORE RETURN TO PLAY:
Breaking down the Eastern Conference series

A look at the Western Conference matchups
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Qualifying Round storylines

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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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Previewing key NHL Return to Play matchups

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In the latest edition of Our Line Starts, Liam McHugh, Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones break down the NHL Return to Play plan and take a look at a few potential hub cities. Plus, they preview some of the more exciting playoff matchups, including Penguins vs. Canadiens, Hurricanes vs. Rangers, Oilers vs. Blackhawks and Predators vs. Coyotes.

3:55-5:40 Is the Return to Play format fair?
6:45-8:05 Hub city discussion
8:05-10:50 Can Montreal upset Pittsburgh?
10:50-13:40 Intriguing Hurricanes-Rangers matchup
13:40- 15:50 Bracket vs Re-seed debate
16:30-18:45 What to make of Oilers vs Blackhawks
18:45-21:05 Coin flip between Coyotes and Predators

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports