WINNIPEG — Ilya Kovalchuk is gassed. He leans forward, soaked in sweat and still breathing hard, wearily but willingly trying to answer questions about his comeback to the NHL.
Except this doesn’t feel like a comeback. It feels like a second act. The resumption of the show after a lengthy intermission.
The set, which started as an immigrant story below the Mason-Dixon Line and shifted to a scene of urban decay in New Jersey, has now shifted again, this time based in Los Angeles. La-La-Land. We, the audience, wait to see if the second act is anywhere close to be as good as the first.
This night, in only his third game back after missing five full years of NHL competition, the 35-year-old Kovalchuk has good reason to be fatigued. Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens had ridden this old horse hard, giving him slightly more than 23 minutes of playing time against the tough, physical Winnipeg Jets. Any sense that Kovalchuk is going to be able to ease himself back into the NHL spotlight has vanished.
The Kings lost and managed only 19 shots. Kovalchuk scored the team’s only goal, a pretty re-direction off a Drew Doughty pass in the first period past Connor Hellebuyck, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season and the kind of elite goalie Kovalchuk hadn’t faced very often during five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League while he was contemplating a return to North America.
“I prefer to win rather than score goals,” pants Kovalchuk when asked about the goal. “It wasn’t enough.”
True, but it was his first NHL goal since getting one against Pittsburgh on April 25, 2013, and he was the best L.A. forward on the ice all night. Dangerous. Creative. Eye-catching. He orchestrated better chances for his teammates than they did for him.
By coincidence, Kovalchuk did all this as, in theory, the leading scorer in Jets franchise history. That was the team known as the Atlanta Thrashers that went out of business in Georgia after he left. He had been the franchise player and when he moved on, well, the NHL’s second attempt to sell hockey in Atlanta was over. For that, hockey fans in Winnipeg are eternally grateful.
Before leaving the NHL, Kovalchuk scored 418 goals in 815 games with Atlanta and the New Jersey Devils, more than one every two games. In the KHL, he scored another 120 goals and helped a team of Russians that wasn’t allowed to be called “Russia” to win Olympic gold earlier this year against non-NHL competition. Whatever that tournament meant to the hockey world, it clearly meant something to Kovalchuk. His work in Russia was done, and he declared himself in search of a roster spot with an NHL squad again.
Only John Tavares, and possibly James van Riemsdyk, were more attractive free agent forwards. Kings general manager Rob Blake, meanwhile, knew he had to find a shooter, a proven goal scorer. So did team president Luc Robitaille, who had once been that player in Los Angeles.
The team had scored only 237 goals last season. The worst came in the post-season when they managed only three goals in the first round of the playoffs against Las Vegas and were swept in humiliating fashion.
The Kings made an offer to Montreal for Max Pacioretty but that fizzled. When Kovalchuk was in California meeting with San Jose, the presumptive favourite, the Kings made their own pitch. Kovalchuk bought it to the tune of a $6.25 million cap hit over three years.
L.A. general manager Rob Blake admits he was surprised that the Kings turned out to be Kovalchuk’s choice.
“I can tell you he came into our meeting really well prepared,” said Blake. “He knew we were missing that specific piece. Other teams had it, but we didn’t.”
It wasn’t precisely clear what the Kings were getting. It was, to some degree, a leap of faith. Jaromir Jagr had left the NHL for the KHL as a 36-year-old superstar and returned three years later as a fitter and friendlier player, but nothing like the force he had once been.
People marvelled at him, but he bounced around over the next seven seasons. Kovalchuk had left at younger age than Jagr, but stayed away longer. What would that do to his game?
Long ago, players like Syl Apps and Max Bentley had given up two years to the military in World War II, and returned to be stars again. Jacques Plante retired for three seasons, then came back at age 39 with the Blues in 1968 and was pretty darn good. Carl Brewer retired from the Leafs in 1965 at age 26, played for the Canadian national team, Muskegon of the IHL and in Finland on his quixotic hockey journey before returning after missing four seasons to play for Detroit.
Ken Dryden skipped the ’73-74 season to clerk for a Toronto law firm, came back the next year and went on to win four more Vezinas. Guy Lafleur retired in 1985, then returned in 1988 at age 37 to score 18 goals for the Rangers.
So what Kovalchuk is attempting isn’t exactly unprecedented. But that doesn’t make it easy to predict. He looks leaner, suggesting he’s certainly not back just to float. He’s not trying to be like Lafleur, to squeeze a little more out of an aging body in a nice warm climate, to hopefully just not embarrass himself.
“It doesn’t look like he’s lost a step,” says Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice. “Definitely there’s a maturity to his game, as you would expect with a player as he gets older. He understands how to use the players around him. And we certainly didn’t want him to shoot the puck tonight.”
The league has changed significantly, become younger, faster and less reliant on “heavy” hockey than it was when Kovalchuk took his final strides with the Devils before shocking the hockey world by announcing his exit in 2013. It seemed like betrayal, really. The Devils had signed him to a $102 million contract that was ruled to be a blatant attempt to circumvent the salary cap, and they were penalized heavily for it. Three years after that, after helping Jersey get to the Stanley Cup final, he just left. Went home. Bye-bye.
What brought him back? He says a chance to win a ring. Maybe that’s it. Kovalchuk was never one to explain himself before, and he doesn’t have a great deal to explain about himself now.
He seemed open to playing for a number of teams. It was the Kings, the aging former champions, who were truly desperate. They could tell Kovalchuk, an aging athlete, exactly what he wanted to hear about how he would be used. Both sides of this relationship were looking to turn back the clock.
There was a talented centre, Anze Kopitar, for him to play with, and Doughty, an elite offensive defencemen. The Kings needed to prove to those players that they weren’t planning to retreat from being a team competing for the Cup.
“Our power play has been a struggle basically every year I’ve been here, 10 years now, and he’s a weapon. So he can help us out in that area,” says Doughty. “They told me they weren’t going to rebuild. That’s why I re-signed here. They wanted to keep pushing for the Cup. So it was great that they showed that by (signing Kovalchuk).”
Tuesday’s game supplied the most encouraging evidence yet for the Kings that the Kovalchuk signing will play dividends. His line, with Kopitar and youngster Alex Iafallo, began to look like a cohesive unit.
It’s been a slow process. Stevens had his staff make a video recording of practice one day just so the trio could see why things weren’t working.
“We have seen some chemistry develop,” says Stevens. “Alex is a good fit on the line. He’s such a worker, such a detail guy. But now you’re seeing (Kovalchuk) and (Kopitar) get a feel for each other in terms of reading off each other, when they’re going to dart, when they’re going to drop in behind, or maybe head to some open ice.
“They both shoot the puck so well, obviously we’d like to see them do that more as a first option, then make plays on recovery. But it does take time. Every day there’s a better understanding.”
Kovalchuk says his body feels good. It’s his head that needs to get in shape.
“I feel pretty good from the first game,” he says. “My legs, you know. But decisions will take a little longer.”
When the Kings finally got a power play against the Jets in the third period, Kovalchuk was on the right side of the formation, not the left side where he could unleash his feared one-timer. That didn’t make much sense. By the time Stevens pulled goalie Jack Campbell for an extra attacker, Kovalchuk was on the left side, more sensible for a goal-scorer who had 138 power-play goals in the NHL before heading home. He didn’t get a shot off, but his presence there sure got Winnipeg’s defensive attention.
“I just like that I’m out there,” says Kovalchuk when asked which side of the ice he prefers to attack from. “On the power play, we can create a lot of momentum for the whole team. The way we played, we didn’t do that. We’ve got to be much better.
“We’ve got to play the whole way like we played the last period. The whole sixty minutes. Soon as we click on the power play we’ll be a better team, for sure.”
This was what the Kings had signed Kovalchuk for, a chance to develop an extra-strength unit that could tilt a game. It didn’t produce magic on this night. But that doesn’t mean it won’t.
So far, the second act hasn’t been as compelling as the first. But we’re intrigued.