The NHL’s off-season has thus far been dominated by a certain ex-Islander heading north for a long-awaited homecoming. But there’s a return of a different sort that might wind up being the most intriguing of this summer’s free-agency storylines.
It’s been half a decade since Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk last suited up in the NHL, the former Thrasher and Devil having spent the past five seasons cleaning up in the KHL. However, after hinting at a return for over a year, Kovalchuk finally set the wheels in motion last month when he agreed to join the Los Angeles Kings on a three-year pact.
Now able to focus on his off-season training before what he hopes will be a Radulov-esque return to the North American league, Kovalchuk shed some light on why he chose the Kings as the site of his NHL revival — it seems the opportunity play with L.A.’s crop of talented veterans sealed the deal.
“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey, because I have three, four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk told reporters Saturday, according to NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “L.A. has a great group of guys, great goaltending, great defence. They have one of the best centres in the league.
“I never had a chance to play with those types of guys, so it’s really exciting for me and it’s great. That was the reason why I came, because they have guys who know how to win and they are really hungry to win.”
It’s fair to assume captain and top-line centre Anze Kopitar led the list of elite talents Kovalchuk sought to suit up with. The two-time Selke Trophy-winner is coming off a career-high 92-point effort for L.A., while fellow veterans Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown managed to top the 60-point plateau in 2017-18 as well.
“When you play with the guys like Kopitar, Doughty, [Jeff] Carter, Brown, those guys, they make it even easier to get the points and the goals. They know how to win, so I will try my best to help them do the same.” Kovalchuk added, according to Kings insider Jon Rosen. “We just need to work really hard and be a good team. It doesn’t matter really who’s going to score — we just need to get to our goals.”
Much has been made of how the veteran will fit into the mix in 2018-19 given the league’s continued trend towards top-end speed and dynamic offensive creativity. But the former Rocket Richard Trophy-winner made clear he’s ready and able to step back into the fray, regardless of how the game may have changed.
“I can’t see the future. I will do my best,” Kovalchuk said. “The last few years I was still in the same caliber like I was, so I feel comfortable. … I was following the NHL last year actually more than four years ago when I was there. But I saw the playoffs, this past playoffs — it’s good.
“Obviously, it’s changed — the time’s running, and I’m not getting younger, but like I said before, we’ll see.”
As for how Kovalchuk projects to slot into the lineup, Kings coach John Stevens offered up his staff’s thoughts Saturday as well, particularly in regards to the veteran’s potential to lift the Kings’ power-play.
“Clearly his M.O. is that he’s had a ton of success playing where [Alex] Ovechkin plays,” Stevens told The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman. “He plays his off side and he’s an elite shooter from that area. It’s my understanding and our research is that he’s probably a lot better passer than he’s been given credit for because he’s been such a good shooter his whole life.
“He’s a big guy that loves to shoot, has a lethal shot, gives us an element of a forward that can one-time the puck on his off side probably better than anybody we’ve had. But I also think he has the ability to make plays off the puck.”
Having spoken to Kovalchuk on the phone following the winger’s commitment to the Californian club, the coach spoke glowingly of Kovalchuk’s own research into the Kings roster and how he’ll potentially fit in.
“The one thing that really came out of that was he was really knowledgeable about our team,” Stevens told Dillman. “In order to be a good player at his age — into his 30s and past his mid-30s — you can’t do it if you’re not really well-trained and you can’t do it if you don’t have a strong passion to play.
“I think he fully understands. It’s allowed him to continue to be a good player.”