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.

***

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues eliminate Jets; Capitals, Stars take leads

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  • The Blues advanced to Round 2, and while the Jets made the final score look respectable, it wasn’t a great, complete effort by Winnipeg.
  • The Stars’ top line was downright dominant for Dallas in taking a 3-2 series lead, putting the Central-winning Predators on the ropes.
  • Washington’s biggest names flexed their muscles, and the Capitals took a 3-2 series lead by blasting the Hurricanes.

Blues 3, Jets 2 (St. Louis wins series 4-2)

Jaden Schwartz scored all three of the Blues’ goals, and he gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead in doing so. After a pitiful, 1-shot second period, Winnipeg did make things more interesting in shrinking that 3-0 deficit to 3-2, but that final push was pretty late, and the overall (lack of) effort could stick with Jets fans and management for quite some time.

St. Louis gets to rest up and prepare for the winner of the series right below …

Stars 5, Predators 3 (Dallas leads 3-2)

It would be frustrating for Nashville if this all came down to Pekka Rinne struggling. Instead, Rinne was often quite sharp on Saturday, particularly when the game was close but the Predators seemingly couldn’t get anything going. Dallas dominated much of the proceedings. The top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov was the most overwhelming, yet other players are stepping up for the Stars, who’ve carried much of the play lately in Round 1. The Predators have some serious work to do, or they’ll be another division winner who will hit the golf course far earlier than most expected.

Capitals 6, Hurricanes 0 (Washington leads 3-2)

To be fair to Carolina, this game was closer than the score seemed … at least early on. They even kinda, sorta had a chance through most of the second period, at least before that much-discussed Dougie Hamilton icing gaffe opened things up for the 3-0 goal. Still, the Hurricanes couldn’t score a goal in this one, and players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin really imposed their will on Game 5. So far, the home team has taken all five games in this series, so the Hurricanes must maintain that trend in Game 6, and then hope they can flip the script if they force a Game 7.

Note: Isabelle Khurshudyan and Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post report that T.J. Oshie suffered a broken collarbone, and will miss the remainder of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. An official announcement is expected, possibly as early as Sunday. PHT will monitor that situation.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are only five games into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet Backstrom already has many goals (five) as he had during all of their Stanley Cup run. He’s also only one behind his career-high for a single postseason of six. Backstrom’s known for his passing, and that’s still generally how he leans when attacking, but he’s absolutely on fire sniping-wise lately, and that will only make him tougher to contain.

Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, including the game-winner to help Washington off to a blazing start, and also chipped in two assists for a four-point game. That’s the most of any skater on Saturday.

(Alex Ovechkin deserves consideration for player of that game and of Saturday, too, as he was a domineering physical presence, along with scoring one goal and two assists.)

2. Jaden Schwartz

You could make an argument that Schwartz’s strong Game 6 was just as important as Backstrom’s performance, even if Backstrom gets the edge in total points at four.

Schwartz scored all three of the Blues goals to claim a hat trick, and that’s coming off of scoring the Blues’ Game 5 winner with about 15 seconds left to stun Winnipeg, and maybe partially explain why the Jets seemed to lack a spark on Saturday.

Personally, Schwartz has been one of those Jonathan Huberdeau-type players who’s always signaled serious talent, but has sometimes been lost in the shuffle, in part because of bad injury luck. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a high-quality player such as Schwartz get his moment in the sun, and Schwartz is absolutely shining in the spotlight.

3. Jamie Benn

Consider this a collective Stars’ first line award if you’d like, as Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov were too much for the Predators to handle, too.

Benn had the most points of the trio, generating three assists, with two of them being primary.

Jim Lites’ “blanking horse-blank” roast of Benn and Seguin seemed to ignore a number of realities, such as the impact the aging curve can have on any star player, particularly a power forward such as Benn. Yet, Benn was that irresistible force at times in Game 5, particularly when he used his size and senses to muscle the puck away from Ryan Ellis to set up one of Dallas’ goals. (Benn’s three assists all came during a single period, a rare feat.)

The Predators will try their best to find an answer for Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, but performances like these make you wonder if they can be denied.

More Factoids

Sunday’s games

Game 6: Bruins at Maple Leafs (Toronto leads 3-2), 3 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream)
Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights (Vegas leads 3-2), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream)

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.

Capitals blow out Hurricanes in Game 5

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Much like earlier in this series, the Washington Capitals got off to a quick lead at home in Game 5. This time around, they never really let the Carolina Hurricanes back into the contest, and eventually turned the game into a blowout.

Washington won Game 5 by a lopsided score of 6-0, giving themselves a 3-2 series lead, and thus pushing the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination.

Nicklas Backstrom is best known for being one of the premier passers in the NHL, yet he continues to be one of the hottest shooters of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, pushing his postseason total to five goals. Backstrom finished with five goals in 20 games (but also 18 assists for 23 points) during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, and has never scored more than six goals during any single postseason run during his career … so yeah, this is an unusual sniping run for a Selke-level playmaker. Overall, Backstrom finished Game 5 with two goals and two assists.

Backstrom wasn’t the only big-name Capitals player who enjoyed a strong Game 5. Alex Ovechkin was a force, but physically and offensively, throwing his body around in a way that was reminiscent to his most boisterous, younger NHL days.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Ovechkin’s alertness and physicality factored into the 3-0 goal, which resulted in Ovechkin setting up a dagger Brett Connolly goal. Was Dougie Hamilton shying away from a potential Ovechkin hit before Ovechkin retrieved the puck? Was Hamilton just confused/pondering abstract art?

Whatever the case may be, that 3-0 goal sapped a lot of energy from the Hurricanes, as it made a third-period comeback go from difficult to nigh-impossible.

Tom Wilson‘s power-play goal 1:04 into the third moved the goalposts back even further, and then the Capitals really ran away with Game 5 thanks to additional goals by Alex Ovechkin and Nic Dowd, the latter scoring on a penalty shot.

Ovechkin ended up with a goal and two assists, while Braden Holtby pitched a 30-save shutout.

Overall, the defending champions looked very much like defending champions on Saturday. The Hurricanes have an opportunity to regain their composure when the series shifts back to Carolina for Game 6, but if Carolina wants to be the latest underdog to come through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they’ll have to win two in a row — which means beating this Capitals team at home, where Washington seems to find yet another level. If Saturday is any indication, that won’t be an easy task, at all.

The Capitals aim to move on, while the Hurricanes hope to survive in Game 6 at PNC Arena on Monday at 7 p.m. ET. The game’s airing on NBCSN. (livestream)

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.

Blues advance, Jets dumped from playoffs with a thud

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Yes, there were red flags for the Winnipeg Jets late in the regular season, yet even pessimists weren’t expecting a flat finish like this.

With the Jets’ season on the line, they offered up a largely flat effort against the Blues (PHT’s Scott Billeck nailed it when he compared Winnipeg’s urgency to that of a grazing cow), falling 3-2 in Game 6. With that, St. Louis wins the series 4-2, and will move on to Round 2 to take on the winner of the Nashville Predators – Dallas Stars series.

[The Stars looked stout in taking a 3-2 lead in that series.]

Chalk it up to the Blues’ suffocating defense, the exhaustion that comes with playoff hockey, the devastation of losing Game 5 in the waning seconds, or a number of other factors, but whatever’s at the root of this problem, the Blues removed them from the postseason like an unsightly weed.

Speaking of Game 5, the closing-moments hero Jaden Schwartz carried over his hot hand, scoring a goal per period to grab a hat trick, and give the Blues a 3-0 lead. While Schwartz’s work is absolutely worth heralding, you can expect the headlines in Winnipeg to revolve around a shockingly listless second period. The Jets sure didn’t look like a team with its season on the line – a team that wanted its season to end, perhaps – as the Blues controlled the shots on goal at 16-1 in the second period, and 27-6 through the first 40 minutes.

(You’d probably not be shocked to learn that one SOG in a period sets a new franchise-low for the Jets.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Dustin Byfuglien gave the Jets a bit of life in making it 3-1 with less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, and Mathieu Perreault added a dash of very-late intrigue to make it 3-2 in the waning seconds. Patrik Laine even got a dangerous shot with just a few seconds remaining, but ultimately that final Jets was a case of too little, too late.

Winnipeg will now stagger into an off-season that isn’t likely to be easy, what with Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba, and Kyle Connor requiring new contracts, and management needing to find some answers. On Saturday, the main question was ” … What happened?”

The spotlight will shine on the Jets’ blemishes after this effort, no doubt, but when a team struggles, there’s usually a reason for it beyond [insert some sort of cliche about “lacking fortitude”]. The Blues steamrolled into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to the point where they almost wrestled away home-ice advantage in Round 1, and also came close to snaring the Central Division title.

One of the major stories of this postseason is teams carrying strong finishes from the regular season over into the games that matter the most, and you could argue that the Blues ended 2018-19 as hot as any team in the NHL. From a strong system, some great players like Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko, to nice depth particularly with Schwartz, and a Cinderella story that might just be legit in Jordan Binnington, this Blues team has a lot going for it.

Did anyone really see this coming when the Blues fired Mike Yeo and seemed to be headed toward a troubling summer, while the Jets’ biggest question was whether they could win the division and go on a deep run? No, not really, but it would be foolish to doubt this Blues squad any longer.

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.

Stars’ top line firing on all cylinders, push Predators to the brink

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It would appear that the Dallas Stars have emptied the Nashville Predators’ well of ideas on how to stop them.

After three close games where Nashville walked away victors of two of them, the Predators have succumbed to a relentless forechecking team that’s clogged the neutral zone and found solid goaltending from Vezina nominee Ben Bishop.

There are just so many little things the Stars are doing right at the moment, and they now hold a 3-2 series lead after a 5-3 win against the Preds on Saturday afternoon, their second straight win in the series and second game in a row where they’ve pumped five goals into the twine.

There’s one team left in these Stanley Cup Playoffs that has yet to give up a power-play goal. That team currently has its foot on the throat of the Predators.

The Stars are 11-for-11 now on the penalty kill through five games of their Western Conference First Round series. It’s been a big boon for the Stars in a series that was tight through the first three games.

Scoring for the Predators has come at a premium in this series, and having a completely misfiring power play has made it much worse.

Nine goals against in his past two outings isn’t what you’d expect from Pekka Rinne, but that’s the reality right now as the reigning Vezina winner isn’t making the saves required. The Predators can’t handle Dallas’s forecheck when it’s going full steam ahead and Rinne is taking the brunt of it.

Nashville’s offense has fallen off a cliff, which is saying a lot for a team that wasn’t a high-scoring offense during the regular season.

Rocco Grimaldi‘s third goal of the series to give the Predators a 1-0 lead was just the sixth goal by a Nashville forward in the series up until that point.

Grimaldi has been great, but he shouldn’t be leading the team at the moment. Ryan Johansen finally picked up his first of the series later in this one. Kyle Turris, too.

Radulov’s brace to open the second period opened up a 3-1 lead. Johansen’s goal pulled the Predators back one, but Tyler Seguin snatched the two-goal cushion back before the second was over.

Dickinson’s second of the game put Dallas up 5-2 and other than Turris’ response 28 seconds after that, the Predators didn’t show their teeth much.

Jamie Benn finished with three assists and his line with Seguin and Radulov combined for seven points. Bishop made 30 saves.

Game 6 goes Monday at American Airlines Arena. The time for the game is TBD. 


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