Willie Desjardins says Ilya Kovalchuk was ‘a challenge’ to coach

Ilya Kovalchuk of the Los Angeles Kings. (Michael Owen Baker/AP)

Willie Desjardins’ latest stop in the NHL wasn’t his most successful. Stepping into the interim head coach role behind Los Angeles’ bench on Nov. 5, the Kings went 27-34-8 under the Climax, Sask., native the rest of the season. The 62 points they accumulated under Desjardins ranked 27th, ahead of only Edmonton, New Jersey, Buffalo and Ottawa.

The 62-year-old, who previously led the Vancouver Canucks for three seasons, told The Athletic’s Josh Cooper that he had many conversations with GM Rob Blake about the direction of the Kings down the stretch, so when he was let go after the regular season concluded, it “wasn’t something I didn’t expect.”

It was certainly a hard year for the Kings, who will now be rewarded with the fifth overall pick in June’s draft. Desjardins talked at length about how the changing reality around the team was especially difficult on the players who became used to having success in Los Angeles, and that without that light at the end of the tunnel the whole season can become a grind.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

“It’s hard when you’re used to winning and then you see that this is going to be a challenge and you might not get to where you want to,” Desjardins told The Athletic. “It’s easy to put lots in when you know you’re going to get something out of it. It’s hard, but it’s easy to do that. When you see that you might win the Cup it’s easier to go hard. When you realize if you go hard you might not make the playoffs it makes it tougher.”

One difficulty in particular was the relationship between Desjardins and Ilya Kovalchuk, which seemed to get worse as the year went along. The 36-year-old Russian returned from playing five years in the KHL to sign a three-year deal with Los Angeles that comes with a $6.25 million cap hit. And since he was 35 at the time of the signing, his contract is buyout-proof.

Based on the way the season started you wouldn’t have assumed things would go as badly as they did. Kovalchuk had three goals and eight points in 11 October games. In Desjardins’ first game behind the bench, Kovalchuk recorded a goal and two assists in a 4-1 win over rival Anaheim. But in the following 11 games Kovalchuk was shutout, and then missed nearly a month to injury. He scored twice in his return, but didn’t light the lamp again for another three weeks.

As a result, Kovalchuk’s ice time took a major hit. He went from averaging 19:06 per game in the first month and a half to 15:44 from December on through. He played less than 10 minutes in back-to-back November games and was a healthy scratch more than once. During a road trip in March, he didn’t even travel with the team.

Kovalchuk aired his grievance with Desjardins in March, saying he “didn’t have a chance” under that particular coach. In speaking to Cooper, Desjardins gave his side of things.

“I like Kovalchuk. I think he’s a good person. I think he practices hard. He works out hard. He gets excited in the games, he gets excited for his teammates, so I think there’s things that he does that I really like,” Desjardins said. “My job as a coach is to try to find the best combination to win and he was a guy that … he was a challenge guy.

“It didn’t turn out great for either one of us, but there are certainly things in his game that I like and I like some things about him for sure.”

Now Desjardins is heading to a familiar place. He’ll return next season as head coach of the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, where he filled the same role from 2002-2010. During his first tenure with the team, Desjardins won two league championships and reached the Memorial Cup Final in 2007. He qualified for the playoffs in each of his eight years with the Tigers and made it past Round 1 seven times.

But given his NHL track record isn’t as glowing, with just one playoff appearance and no series wins in four tries, does he believe he’ll get another crack behind a bench in the big leagues?

“Whenever you lose, people rightly or wrongly, look at your record. Like it’s hard not to. When people look at that, that makes it tough for me,” he said. “So for me to get another chance it’s going to have to be somebody I know well who knows me and my history, so that’s something time will tell if that person comes up or not or if that opportunity comes up.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.