The Pacific Division may be the hardest of the four cohorts in the NHL to predict right now. Will Edmonton be better without making any significant moves so far? Is Calgary the top dog thanks to the addition of James Neal and Elias Lindholm, even with the Dougie Hamilton-Noah Hanifin swap? And what’s Vegas going to do for an encore? Let your mind run wild with the possibilities.
One of the biggest X-factors may be the Los Angeles Kings, however.
Still possessing much of the core that won two Stanley Cups, the Kings seem to be zigging while everyone else zags: they’re not built on speed or youth. Sure, they were a bit faster under John Stevens than they were under Darryl Sutter, but as their sweep at the hands of the speedy Vegas Golden Knights showed in the playoffs, they’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
So it’s intriguing that L.A.’s big signing this summer was left winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who has played in the KHL for powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg for the past five seasons. Now 35, ‘Kovy’ returns with a lot of fanfare and a lot of questions: just how effective can he be, now that the competition is heightened and the ice surface is smaller?
“I can’t see the future,” Kovalchuk said. “But I will do my best. The past few years I’ve been at the same caliber and I will work really hard. I’m 35, but I’m a young 35.”
He’ll need to be. The NHL really seems like a young man’s league right now and Kovalchuk’s best seasons came in an era where he could use his big body and puck skills to do offensive damage. On the other hand, he never had teammates like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty on his side all at the same time. In Atlanta, he shared the ice with Dany Heatley and then a young Marian Hossa, while New Jersey had Patrik Elias and Zach Parise. Kovalchuk helped that Devils team to the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to none other than the Kings.
“I have three or four years left in my tank where I can play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has great players and I never had the chance to play with guys like that before.”
Kopitar texted Kovalchuk right after he signed his deal, as did several other Kings players. The idea of Kopitar, a perennial Selke candidate and a Hart finalist this past season, playing on a line with Kovalchuk is pretty tantalizing - those are two big dudes who know how to handle the puck and Kopitar is coming off his best offensive season ever, a 92-point effort that got Los Angeles back into the playoffs after missing two of the three previous seasons.
Kovalchuk’s run with New Jersey in 2012 was his only deep sojourn into the Cup tournament; he had played a total of nine post-season games before that in a decade’s worth of hockey.
“I wanted to go to a place where I had a chance to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “The Kings were definitely one of those teams and they were really interested in me.”
So why now? There had been tons of talk last year about Kovalchuk coming back and though his past NHL contract with the Devils muddied the waters a little, that wasn’t the impetus: when Kovalchuk found out the NHL wouldn’t be going to the Olympics, he decided to stay one more year in Russia. Similarly, his choice of Los Angeles as his new franchise didn’t have anything to do with sun or the fact L.A. was willing to give him a third year in the contract: he just wants to play for a winner.
Back in Russia, Kovalchuk did a lot of winning. St. Petersburg won the Gagarin Cup twice and he scored the clinching goal both times, while being named playoff MVP once. This year, he also won Olympic gold - it may have been against the weakest Olympic competition in decades, but he still won it.
Now comes the acid test. Is Kovalchuk still good enough for the NHL, or was he just KHL good? It’s a big distinction, but one the Kings are banking on to bolster a middling offensive attack that ended up scoring just three goals total against Vegas in the playoffs. Is Kovalchuk ready?
“Let’s wait until the first game or the first 10 games,” he said. “I just want to play.”