Ilya Kovachuk

Sorting out the sad mess between Kovalchuk, Kings

16 Comments

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.