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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.

Kovalchuk would be fantastic fit for Kings, Sharks

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TSN’s Darren Dreger presented a fascinating update in the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes: the 35-year-old is making a tour of California, meeting with the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.

(Side question: does this mean Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray is just on vacation or something?)

Now, there’s no telling how interested Kovalchuk would be in signing with either team.

That said, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams being of some interest to the veteran sniper. Kovalchuk is reportedly weighing winning more than getting the biggest paycheck possible, so it’s worth noting that both teams made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and each franchise appears to be in win-now modes. Each squad boasts lengthy recent histories of success that surely registered to Kovalchuk during his time in the NHL, too.

Oh yeah, the weather’s also nice around those areas. That cannot hurt.

Let’s consider the other vantage point, then, and daydream about how much Kovalchuk could potentially help the Kings or Sharks.

A dream combo in their twilight

The Sharks have money to burn this off-season, even with some RFAs to re-sign, such as Tomas Hertl. An unclear cap ceiling and a probable Paul Martin buyout make their exact ceiling tough to gauge, but even after retaining Evander Kane at a hefty fee, the Sharks boast a fat wallet.

Let’s assume that the Sharks a) fall short in the John Tavares sweepstakes but b) bring back Joe Thornton and sign Kovalchuk.

For hockey fans of a certain age, it would feel a lot like a generation’s Adam Oates being united with Brett Hull, albeit past their primes. (So maybe this would be akin to Hull joining Oates when the latter almost won a Stanley Cup with the Ducks?)

While you’ll get dissenters, combining the greatest passer of his time (Thornton) with the deadliest pure shooter (Kovalchuk) would feel like a fantasy hockey dream come true. Granted, that fantasy hockey dream would be from 2008, but it would probably still be a blast in 2018-19.

Hockey teaches us that those dream scenarios don’t always play out on the ice. Maybe Kovalchuk would mix better with Logan Couture. Perhaps the Sharks would rather load up Thornton with Kane and Joe Pavelski. There are probably even hypotheticals where San Jose moves the two around to try to put together three dangerous lines. And so on.

Considering how strong the Sharks looked with Thornton on the shelf, and how they have great assets including defensemen Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, it isn’t difficult to picture Kovalchuk to San Jose being mutually beneficial.

(And, hey, the Sharks have a history of landing some significant Russian players, right down to their early days.)

Speaking of delayed matches …

Speaking of Kovalchuk during his prime, it was no secret that the Kings were in hot pursuit of the winger when he hit the free agent market. Some would argue that his decision boiled down to the Kings or the New Jersey Devils.

The “What if?” scenarios are pretty fun there, as the Kings captured two Stanley Cups, including one by edging a Devils team that leaned heavily upon Kovalchuk and Zach Parise.

As much as Los Angeles hopes to modernize post-Darryl Sutter, the truth is that this franchise likely still values winning now over any true notion of a rebuild. Anze Kopitar‘s $10 million cap hit runs through 2023-24, Jonathan Quick‘s deal is only one year shorter, and they’re on the hook for multiple years of Dustin Brown still. For better or worse, they may also extend Drew Doughty to a lengthy deal this summer.

Seeking free agent fixes could very well be the Kings’ path for some time, and few opportunities seem as promising as adding Kovalchuk, even at 35.

The most enjoyable scenario if they landed him:

  • After logging around Brown and Alex Iafallo last season, Kopitar could set up reams of quality scoring chances for Kovalchuk, a player who would ideally be far more capably of burying such chances.
  • Meanwhile, a healthy Jeff Carter skates with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, giving the Kings a truly dangerous one-two punch of scoring lines.

Now, it wouldn’t be shocking if Carter mixed better with Kovalchuk. (The fact that they’re both such dangerous shooters could really open up passing lanes, amusingly enough.)

Either way, a productive and useful Kovalchuk would be a boon for the Kings. Honestly, I’d argue that the Kings would want Kovalchuk more than the other way around … which is consistent with their feelings a decade ago, apparently?

***

The bottom line is that all Kovalchuk talk is speculation, as he cannot sign with an NHL team until July.

So, yes, these discussions are largely hypothetical. That’s really part of the fun, though, as imagining possible outcomes sometimes ends up being more entertaining than boring old reality.

Draft weekend maneuverings could very well alter the landscape and force a single, no-brainer choice for Kovalchuk. As of this writing, there would be a lot to like about the Sharks or Kings signing Kovalchuk, though.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Red Wings at Kings

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

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Detroit Red Wings

Tyler BertuzziHenrik ZetterbergGustav Nyquist

Darren HelmDylan LarkinAnthony Mantha

Justin AbdelkaderFrans NielsenAndreas Athanasiou

Martin FrkLuke Glendening — Evgeny Svechnikov

Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley

Dan DeKeyserNick Jensen

Niklas KronwallMike Green

Starting goalie: Jared Coreau

[Red Wings – Kings preview.]

Los Angeles Kings

Alex IafalloAnze KopitarDustin Brown

Tobias RiederJeff CarterTrevor Lewis

Tanner PearsonAdrian KempeTyler Toffoli

Kyle CliffordMichael AmadioNate Thompson

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty

Dion PhaneufAlec Martinez

Jake Muzzin — Paul LaDue

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings at Vegas Golden Knights

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Los Angeles Kings

Alex IafalloAnze KopitarDustin Brown

Tanner PearsonJeff CarterTyler Toffoli

Tobias RiederAdrian KempeNate Thompson

Kyle CliffordMichael AmadioTorrey Mitchell

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty

Dion PhaneufAlec Martinez

Jake MuzzinChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Jack Campbell

[Kings – Golden Knights preview.]

Vegas Golden Knights

Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith

David PerronErik HaulaJames Neal

Alex TuchCody EakinTomas Tatar

Ryan ReavesRyan CarpenterTomas Nosek

Luca SbisaNate Schmidt

Shea TheodoreDeryk Engelland

Colin MillerBrayden McNabb

Starting goalie: Maxime Lagace

WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings at Nashville Predators

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Los Angeles Kings

Alex IafalloAnze KopitarTyler Toffoli

Tanner PearsonAdrian KempeDustin Brown

Kyle CliffordTorrey MitchellTrevor Lewis

Marian GaborikNick ShoreAndy Andreoff

Kevin GravelDrew Doughty

Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez

Derek ForbortChristian Folin

Starting, returning goalie: Jonathan Quick

[Preview for Kings – Predators]

Nashville Predators

Filip Forsberg (he’s back!) — Ryan JohansenViktor Arvidsson

Scott HartnellKyle TurrisCraig Smith

Kevin FialaNick BoninoCalle Jarnkrok

Miikka SalomakiColton SissonsAustin Watson

Roman JosiRyan Ellis

Alexei EmelinP.K. Subban

Mattias EkholmYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne