An explosive player. A shooter. A dominant force for the past few seasons. That’s how Ilya Kovalchuk was described by the Los Angeles Kings’ front office in the wake of his signing a three-year, $18.75-million pact to make his return to the NHL. But if you were to tune into any of the Kings’ past several contests, there’s been another term that could best describe Kovalchuk: fourth-liner.
Take Tuesday’s contest against the Vancouver Canucks. In Los Angeles’ 2-1 overtime victory, Kovalchuk saw the ice for only slightly more than nine minutes. Only two Kings forwards, Austin Wagner and Sheldon Rempal, skated less than the 35-year-old. And Kovalchuk’s nine-minute outing came on the heels of a contest in which he played 6:20 and was given a mere 10 shifts against the Edmonton Oilers. Michael Amadio was Los Angeles’ only skater with less ice time in the 5-2 win.
True as it may be that those two contests, the only of the season in which Kovalchuk has skated less than 10 minutes in a game, are outliers, the reality is that the veteran winger’s ice time has been on a steady decline throughout November. In fact, since Willie Desjardins took over, Kovalchuk’s usage has plummeted significantly. Under John Stevens, Kovalchuk was averaging 19:11 across 13 games. His average ice time under the Kings’ interim bench boss? A scant 14:42, a decrease of nearly 4:30 per game. Kovalchuk has dropped out of the top six, and his time on ice now falls into the same range as the likes of Nate Thompson, Trevor Lewis and recent acquisition Carl Hagelin.
How did Desjardins explain Kovalchuk’s changing role ahead of Tuesday’s game? “I just made that decision because it gave us the best chance that game (against Edmonton),” the coach said, according to LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen. “And I think it gives us the best chance down the road, too.”
Immediate results seemingly lend credence to Desjardins methods, even if they are ominous for Kovalchuk. The Kings, over a five-game stretch in which Kovalchuk has averaged little more than 11:30 per game, have a 3-2 record. For a team that has been mired in the Western Conference basement for much of the season, any five-game period in which they’re above .500 is a positive. Can the argument be made that the Kings have been better — not just in results, but in process — with Kovalchuk in the bottom-six, though?
It depends where you look. Los Angeles has seen a modest rise in shooting percentage and a significant increase in save percentage at 5-on-5 over their past 11 games, but the way in which they’ve arrived at those numbers doesn’t indicate sustainability. The Kings have experienced a downturn in 5-on-5 Corsi percentage, shots percentage and high-danger chances percentage since Desjardins took over. Scoring chance percentage has risen. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk's own 5-on-5 percentages have slipped, though some aspect of linemate quality could be at work there.
Still, any way you slice it, it’s hard to imagine that saddling Kovalchuk with fourth-line minutes is going to be at all conducive to any long-term success Los Angeles hopes to have. In large part, that’s because the Kings are limiting the opportunities afforded to a player who is supposed to be and had been one of their primary offensive drivers, which is exactly the kind of player he was signed to be.
While true that Los Angeles’ goal production on a per-game basis has remained at roughly the same rate pre- and post-Stevens — 2.15 before, 2.18 after — the purpose of pursuing and signing Kovalchuk was for him to add to the attack. Putting him on the fourth line and trotting him out for 15 or so shifts hasn’t made him impactful in any way. Case in point, prior to Desjardins coming aboard, the Kings’ big free-agent signing was a near point per game performer. His four goals and 11 points were both top marks in Los Angeles. In the time since the coaching change, though, Kovalchuk’s production has dropped precipitously. He has one goal and three points in his past 11 games. That's hardly worth the payday.
The limiting goes beyond the overall ice time, too, because even if one wanted to excuse the decision to reduce Kovalchuk’s even strength usage, it’s hard to fathom why Los Angeles isn’t at least leaning on one of his greatest strengths, his shot, and utilizing him more heavily on the power play. Instead of consistently manning the top unit — which seemed a given when he was signed and was something that Drew Doughty spoke about ahead of the season, calling Kovalchuk a player Los Angeles could put in the “Ovechkin spot” — the two-time 50-goal man has watched his power play ice time drop under Desjardins.
Over the past two weeks, Kovalchuk ranks sixth in power play ice time per game in Los Angeles, barely seeing more time on the man advantage than Alex Iafallo. And that’s not a knock against Iafallo, who has potential to be a solid contributor in Los Angeles, but one of the two platyers is an NHL sophomore, while the other is a nine-time 30-goal scorer and former Rocket Richard Trophy winner who scored 42 goals in 78 games across all competitions last season. One would think that, at worst, Kovalchuk would be seeing the ice as a power play specialist. Even that would be an upgrade from his current role, though.
Kovalchuk can still produce. We saw as much under Stevens. And Los Angeles is paying him big money in order for him to help guide what has been a largely popgun attack in recent years. But where this goes at this point is anyone’s guess. The Kings front office and ownership group probably isn’t all that enthused about shelling out upwards of $6-million per season for a player who has effectively been, at least for the past few weeks, a fourth-liner. And even if Kovalchuk is saying all the right things right now and Desjardins is praising the attitude with which the veteran is approaching his limited ice time, one has to wonder how long both Los Angeles and Kovalchuk will want to carry on like this.