Ilya Kovalchuk ‘excited’ for NHL return after five years in KHL

Ilya Kovalchuk returns to the NHL as a Los Angeles King after five years in the KHL. (Michael Owen Baker/AP)

Five years ago, Ilya Kovalchuk walked away from a 15-year, $100 million contract signed with the New Jersey Devils. Officially, he retired from the NHL, but he’s been a top scorer in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg ever since. In fact, his best years were his most recent ones: In 2016-17 he finished second in league scoring, and last season he won the title with 63 points in 53 games.

Now 35 years old, Kovalchuk returns to an NHL that has skewed younger and faster since he left in 2013. There are 30 healthy players currently under NHL contracts who are at least that age, with only a few of them still classified as high-end impact players. He signed a three-year contract with the Kings, which is buyout proof in that Los Angeles wouldn’t get cap relief if it went down that road.

After being away from North America for so long, why did he choose now to return?

“I achieved everything that I wanted when I went back to Russia,” Kovalchuk told ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. “We won the Olympics. That was a main goal. Now, I think I have some gas left in my tank. I’m excited. I wasn’t here for five years, and a lot of things changed, but it’s great to be back.”

The last time we saw Kovalchuk in the NHL, he scored 11 goals in 37 games — and he was a 30-goal scorer in his last full season. It’s hard to gauge what to expect out of him in 2018-19, but in training camp he’s being used on the Kings’ top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, a pair that saw a resurgence of their own last season. And if Kovalchuk’s first pre-season goal is any indication, he’s still got it.

Kovalchuk noted that he has to get used to the NHL game all over again, which is where pre-season comes in, but that he put in the off-ice work to at least return in shape and position himself to start on the right foot.

“I have to adjust to the system. It’s all new for me,” Kovalchuk told ESPN. “It’s a learning process, so it’s good that we have some time before the first real games. The game is a little faster (than in the KHL). You have less room. Less time. Playing in the pre-season is a good welcome. Every game, I’ll play better and better.”

Now living in Beverly Hills, Kovalchuk also discussed how he ended up in Los Angeles after all sorts of reports had him landing on the East Coast, with New York as a lead destination. Kovalchuk said that was all hearsay, and Los Angeles’ weather, lifestyle and quality hockey team pulled him to the West Coast.

“The same core group of guys from the 2014 one that won the Cup,” he said.

In the Q&A, Kovalchuk also elaborated on winning Olympic gold under the ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ banner, watching Alex Ovechkin’s boisterous summer Stanley Cup celebrations, and more.

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