2018 nhl free agency

Kings bench Kovalchuk, GM refuses to say for how long

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LOS ANGELES — Left wing Ilya Kovalchuk was a healthy scratch for the Los Angeles Kings in their 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, and the team wouldn’t say how long he will be out of the lineup.

Sportsnet Canada reported before the game that the Kings informed Kovalchuk he is being benched for an extended period. General manager Rob Blake and coach Todd McLellan refused to say whether it was for one game only or longer.

The 36-year-old Russian had two goals and four assists in Los Angeles’ first four games but has only one goal and two assists in the past 13.

“He was a healthy scratch, but tomorrow is a new day,” McLellan said after the game. “He is on board and has opportunities to go back in.”

McLellan said he is treating Kovalchuk the same way he would other players who are struggling. The coach cited right wing Tyler Toffoli being a healthy scratch for a game two weeks ago and left wing Adrian Kempe also being scratched on Tuesday. Those two players, though, don’t have the star power or $18.75 million, three-year contract Kovalchuk does.

“If they had to come out and watch one, then so does he. We treat them the same,” McLellan said.

The Kings are tied with Minnesota and Ottawa for the fewest points in the NHL with 13 and are 2-6-1 in their last nine games.

Blake said he met with Kovalchuk before the game, but the decision to bench him was made by McLellan.

“We’re in last place, right? We changed a lot of lineups,” Blake said. “We’re trying to find combinations that work, try to score some goals.”

This is the second straight year that Kovalchuk has found himself in and out of the lineup, which team captain Anze Kopitar said was not what anyone envisioned.

“It’s not a great situation,” Kopitar said. “Kovy is a good guy. There’s nothing wrong with the attitude or anything. For whatever reason, it is not working on the ice.”

PHT Morning Skate: Worst free-agent contracts in 2018; McAvoy’s price

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Stars prospect Jake Oettinger is looking to battle his way into the NHL. (NHL.com/Stars)

• The Maple Leafs have found a way to use signing bonuses to their advantage. (TSN)

• Let’s look back at the worst contracts handed out on July 1st, 2018. (The Hockey News)

• What five signings would The Score like to see this offseason? (The Score)

• What went wrong with the Florida Panthers in 2018-19? Rotoworld examines. (Rotoworld)

• Will hockey culture ever accept players to sit for mental health reasons? (Grand Stand Central)

• Leafs forward William Nylander doesn’t believe that Mitch Marner has to rush signing a new contract. (NHL.com)

• How much will restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo cost the Bruins this summer? (NBC Sports Boston)

• Habs prospect Nick Suzuki has an eye on a roster spot with the team this fall. (Montreal Gazette)

• What has Wayne Simmonds‘ body of work looked like over the last little while and how much is he worth on the open market? (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

Joe Pavelski can still put the puck in the net, but how would he fit in with the Tampa Bay Lightning? (Raw Charge)

• The Maple Leafs may have found their backup goalie for next season. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Should the Blues trade Jake Allen? Can they even find a taker for him? (St. Louis Game Time)

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.

Ilya Kovalchuk ready for cold reception in return to New Jersey

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“I wanted to go to the place where I have a chance to win the Cup, and the Kings are definitely one of the teams.”

Year One of Ilya Kovalchuk’s return to the NHL isn’t going as planned, with the Los Angeles Kings selling off pieces as they contemplate the future while eyeing the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery.

The NHL comeback continues on Tuesday as Kovalchuk returns to New Jersey for the first time since his shock 2013 retirement announcement. Only two players remain from that Devils team — captain Andy Green and Travis Zajac. They might have some friendly exchanges on the ice, but the Prudential Center crowd will probably have different feelings, ones still with them nearly six years later.

“I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing,” Kovalchuk said, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, after LA’s overtime win against the New York Rangers Monday night, “but I love that, so it’s all good.”

Of course, it was only “retiring” from the NHL so he could go to the KHL for five seasons and also represent Russia (a.k.a. Olympic Athletes of Russia) during the 2018 Winter Olympics and win gold.

The controversial decision, which came three years after he signed a 15-year, $100M extension with the Devils, worked for both sides. Kovalchuk got to go home and New Jersey freed up cap space. The league did fine the team $3M and docked them a 2011 third-round pick and a future first-round choice, but the NHL then decided in 2014 to give New Jersey back the first-rounder and forgave part of the fine.

(Kovalchuk’s original 17-year, $102M contract signed in 2010 was deemed salary cap circumvention and the NHL and NHLPA went to arbitration where the deal was nullified.)

In 222 regular season games with the Devils Kovalchuk scored 89 goals and recorded 201 points. His production continued into the postseason where he scored 10 goals and recorded 25 points in 28 playoff games, which included New Jersey’s 2012 appearance in the Stanley Cup Final against the Russian forward’s new team in LA.

After years of speculation about a return, Kovalchuk was free to come back to the NHL after turning 35 last April. The Devils had held his rights since his “retirement.” With the Kings ponying up a third year, he signed in LA for $18.75M and there was plenty of excitement and intrigue about how he would play after so long away from the NHL.

Well, through 42 games, Kovalchuk has 10 goals and 25 points. Despite claiming he’s a “young 35,” the offense has been serviceable on a famously slow Kings roster, even as he missed a time with an ankle injury. His ice time is only at 16:40, not like the 20-plus minutes a night he played during his prime years. He’s been benched, put on the third line and played a net-front presence on the power play.

It’s been a weird year all around in LA.

Given the state of the Kings and Kovalchuk still showing he can be of service with the right useage, his name has popped up in the trade rumor mill ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline. But two more years with a $6.25M cap hit will probably dissuade teams from heavily pursuing such a move.

For now, Kovalchuk is focused on Tuesday night’s game against the Devils and the memories of his years in New Jersey.

“We had a great team,” he said. “We went to the Final. It was a lot of fun. I played with some great players there, a few Hall of Famers and some guys have their jersey retired. It was a great experience for sure.”

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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.