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Ilya Kovalchuk quickly getting up to speed with Kings

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We’ll see how the skills we witnessed over 11 NHL seasons are following five years home in the KHL, but Ilya Kovalchuk is off to a good start after his first two preseason games with the Los Angeles Kings.

After picking up an assist in their first game, the 35-year-old Kovalchuk, who signed a three-year contract over the summer, scored a highlight-reel tally in a split-squad loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.

“That’s the type of player he is,” said Kings assistant Dave Lowry via LA Kings Insider. “He’s a very dynamic guy, he has the ability to break open games, he’s a very highly skilled guy.”

Is the NHL faster than what Kovalchuk remembers? “I’ll tell you after the [season opener],” he said. Playing on a line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, the Kings captain said they’re still working on developing chemistry as he gets used to going from Milan Lucic‘s “north-south” game to the Russian winger’s “east-west” style.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Kovalchuk’s goal scoring abilities didn’t dry up during his time in the KHL, so he’ll be relied upon to play a big role in increasing the team’s offensive output in 2018-19. That will come. After two preseason games, he wasn’t ready to declare himself up to speed with the NHL’s pace just yet.

“Actually today, I felt much better than the first game, so a few more games will be more than enough,” he said.

MORE: Under Pressure: Ilya Kovalchuk

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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.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

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

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

Three questions facing Los Angeles Kings

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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.

Want more on the Kings? Check these posts out:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

 1. Can Jonathan Quick do it again?

After a tough 2016-17 campaign where he was limited to just 17 games played, Jonathan Quick produced a very nice 2017-18 season. It was one of the American netminder’s best in the NHL; while his 33-28-3 record didn’t blow anyone away, Quick generated a nice .921 save percentage.

Such work was especially notable because, after hogging the puck under Darryl Sutter, the Kings opened things up – by their standards – thus making life a little tougher on their goalies. They were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed (according to Natural Stat Trick), for instance. This isn’t to say that they turned into Swiss cheese, yet there was a give-and-take, and Quick handled the change well.

Can he do it again in 2018-19? And if he cannot – or if Quick gets hurt – will the Kings crumble?

For much of last season, the Kings enjoyed strong backup work from Darcy Kuemper, but the team traded him to Arizona before the deadline.

It’s plausible that there could be a bigger drop-off from Quick to everyone else, then.

If nothing else, though, the Kings have options behind him. Jack Campbell showed some of that first-round promise, albeit in a small sample size, so he might help here and there in a pinch. The Kings also brought back Peter Budaj. On one hand, the journeyman goalie is already 35. On the other, he’s not that far removed from success with Los Angeles, as he surprised with a .917 save percentage over 53 games in 2016-17.

2. Will veterans deliver or hit the wall?

Quick, 32, isn’t the only Kings player who’s accrued a lot of mileage, yet will be counted upon to carry them down the road in 2018-19.

Drew Doughty is still in his prime at 28, but any sign of decay would provide some concern with that eight-year, $88M extension not even kicking in until 2019-20.

Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, and Dustin Brown are all 33. Anze Kopitar is 30, while we discussed the risk-reward scenario regarding 35-year-old addition Ilya Kovalchuk here. Alec Martinez is 31, and even Jake Muzzin could lose a step at 29.

The margin between victory and defeat can be pretty small in sports, so even moderate slippage can be a concern for the Kings.

3. More days of the new?

The Kings picked up the pace last season, and they also saw some young players emerge. Head coach John Stevens must continue to strive for the ideal balance between putting veterans in a position to continue to succeed, allowing young players to thrive, and adapting the team’s structure to be more modern than what was seen under Darryl Sutter.

(After all, it would be silly to throw out everything Sutter put in place, considering how effective the Kings previously were at hogging the puck.)

When it comes to seeing youthful talent ascend, some of that may come down to giving more ice time to someone like Adrian Kempe.

Training camp could also be crucial for the growth of Gabriel Vilardi, an intriguing forward who slipped – slightly – to the Kings at the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“Gabe, he’s got a big presence out there,” Kings front office member Mike O’Connell said, via NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

If the Kings can integrate Vilardi into the lineup, then they may finally get some supporting scoring to go with what has frequently been a top-heavy offensive approach. An injection of young talent could go from a nice luxury to a bare necessity if question 2 doesn’t work out so well for the Kings, too.

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.

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.

It’s Los Angeles Kings day at PHT

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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.

2017-18

45-29-8, 98 pts. (4th Pacific Division; 7th Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-0 vs. Vegas Golden Knights, first round

IN:

Ilya Kovalchuk

OUT: 

Kevin Gravel
Torrey Mitchell
Tobias Rieder
Christian Folin

RE-SIGNED: 

Oscar Fantenberg
Drew Doughty

The Kings got off to a fantastic start, as they went 9-2-1 in the first month of the season. Unfortunately, they followed October up by going just 6-6-2 in November. In the end, the Kings managed to sneak into the playoffs via a Wild Card spot, but they were swept in a first-round series against the Golden Knights (the series was a lot closer than the end result would indicate).

Los Angeles’ downfall in 2017-18, was that they simply couldn’t put the puck into their opponent’s net. Of all the teams that made the postseason, only Anaheim (235) scored less often than the Kings (239) during the regular season.

The team still got some positive performances from key figures like Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Both players had bounce-back seasons in 2017-18. After scoring just 52 points in 2016-17, Kopitar put up an incredible 35 goals and 92 points in 82 games. He was incredible. As for Brown, he scored 28 goals and 61 points in 81 games, which is impressive when you consider that he put up just 27, 27, 28 and 36 points in his previous four seasons.

Drew Doughty remained as solid as he’s ever been. The veteran defenseman scored 10 goals and 60 points while playing in every game.

After Kopitar, Brown and Doughty, no other player on the team managed to surpass the 47-point mark, which is problematic considering the depth it takes to win on a regular basis in the NHL now. The Kings are hoping that adding Ilya Kovalchuk to the fold will give them another legitimate offensive threat. Keeping Jeff Carter healthy should also help them in the goal department.

The fact that starting goaltender Jonathan Quick was healthy last season also helped the Kings get back to respectability. Quick played in just 17 games during the previous season, but he managed to handle a 64-game workload last year. The 32-year-old was solid, and he helped the team give up the fewest amount of goals during the regular season (203).

The Kings were able to keep Vegas from scoring, but they simply couldn’t find the offensive production to match. They were able to sprinkle some youth into their lineup with Adrian Kempe, Alex Iaffalo and Mike Amadio, but the roster could stand to get a little bit younger in the coming years, too. They’ll need young guys to chip in offensively if they’re going to do some damage this season.

GM Rob Blake clearly believes this team is in win-now mode, which is why he brought Kovalchuk to California, but it appears as though the window is starting to close on them.

Prospect Pool

• Gabriel Vilardi, C, 18, Kingston Frontenacs – 2017 first-round pick

Vilardi missed the start of the OHL season because of an injury, but he accumulated an impressive 22 goals and 58 points in 32 games in his first year with the Frontenacs. He’s a big center with great vision and great all-around awareness. As his junior numbers indicate, he’s also capable of contributing offensively. The Kings could opt to send him back to junior to see what he’s capable of doing when he’s fully healthy, but he’s probably not that far away from making the leap to the NHL.

“He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates,” Kings special advisor Mike O’Connell told NHL.com. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

• Rasmus Kupari, C, 18, Karpat – 2018 first-round pick

Like Vilardi, Kupari gives the Kings another center that is capable of creating offense with his skill (he’s smaller than Vilardi). In his first introduction to pro hockey, the youngster scored six goals and 14 points in 39 games in Finland’s first division, which is a solid season given his age. Of all the prospects on this list, he’s probably the furthest one from contributing at the NHL level, but he’s talented enough that he could get there sooner than later.

• Kale Clague, D, 20, Moose Jaw Warriors – 2016 second-round pick

Clague has been a pleasant surprise since the Kings drafted him in 2016. Not only has he put up impressive numbers at the junior level, but he also managed to crack Team Canada’s roster at each of the last two World Junior Hockey Championship tournaments. He’s a smooth skater that can carry and distribute the puck around the ice. The 20-year-old is also capable of chipping in offensively, as he put up 11 goals and 71 points in 54 games with Brandon and Moose Jaw. He’ll now make the jump to the professional ranks this season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.