From Russia, with belated love.
Eight years ago, the Kings found themselves needing more punch offensively following a first-round elimination in the playoffs. They unsuccessfully courted prolific Russian winger Ilya Kovalchuk that summer.
“It didn’t work then,” Kings president Luc Robitaille told the NHL Network. “It worked now.”
Again needing a finisher following a first-round exit, the Kings agreed to terms Saturday with the 35-year-old Kovalchuk on a three-year contract worth $18.75 million. The $6.25 million annual payout is a steep hit for a player who hasn’t played in the NHL in five years, but the Kings are desperate for goals, on the power play and from the wing, where Kovalchuk deposited many of his 417 goals in 816 NHL games.
“He gives us an added element of skill and scoring along with a desire to win,” general manager Rob Blake said in a statement.
Blake could not be reached for further comment. The Kings cannot sign Kovalchuk until free agency begins July 1. But securing him sets off a chain reaction on the market and represents a bold move by the Kings in beating out reported suitors the San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins.
It also requires the Kings to adjust their offseason strategy as they intend to extend Drew Doughty’s contract. A significant raise in Doughty’s salary likely would force the Kings to free salary-cap space. Kovalchuk would be the second-highest paid forward on the Kings, behind Anze Kopitar, and they’re wishing for at least 20 goals from Kovalchuk after they scored three total in a playoff series loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Kovalchuk possessed Alex Ovechkin-level skill earlier in his career with two 50-goal seasons but hasn’t played in the NHL since 2013, when he left the New Jersey Devils and the 15-year, $100 million contract he signed in 2010. He has been productive against lower competition, having won the Kontinental Hockey League’s scoring title for St. Petersburg last season, and claiming most valuable player of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which did not include NHL players.
Kings assistant general manager Michael Futa has said “there’s obviously a bit of a risk factor,” but he has scouted Kovalchuk and said the Russian still can shoot the puck from anywhere on the ice.
Kovalchuk is not known as a defensive player, which runs in heavy contrast to the Kings’ philosophy of two-way play. But his hands and shot mentality, alongside Kopitar and Jeff Carter, warrant the risk.
“He’s very explosive,” Robitaille said. “We watched him enough last year and we feel he can [produce] in this league. The way our guys [play] — whether it’s Carts or it’s Kopi — they can hold the puck for him. He’s a great fit.”
Kings, Ducks get offensive
The Kings and Ducks continued on an offensive path with centers Akil Thomas and Benoit-Olivier Groulx as their respective second-round picks.
Thomas was projected as a first-round pick but fell to the Kings at 51st overall.
“We’re very happy that he was there,” said Mark Yannetti, director of amateur scouting for the Kings.
The 15th-ranked skater in North America by NHL’s Central Scouting, Thomas is known for his skating and creative playmaking. But what really impressed the Kings were two extensive interviews with Thomas.
“He was really open and honest,” Yannetti said. “He tried to answer the questions rather than give us the answers we wanted, and when a kid does that … that makes me more sure that the inconsistencies will be washed out of his game when he matures.”
The Kings used their first three picks of the day on forwards, with Bulat Shafigullin and Aidan Dudas following Thomas. They took two goalies, David Hrenak and Jacob Ingham, the former a Slovakian whose childhood idol was Kings goalie Peter Budaj.
“We needed to address skill, we needed to address speed, we needed to address creativity,” Yannetti said.
Groulx is a versatile forward with edge. He was a more than a point-per-game player for Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He comes from a hockey background as the son of Benoit Groulx, coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s minor league team.
“He plays like a coach’s son,” said Martin Madden, the Ducks’ director of scouting. “He’s a really smart, two-way guy with nice skill and vision … he does have late-first, early-second [round] type talent.”
The Ducks tapped two Minnesota-born forwards, Blake McLaughlin and Jackson Perbix, in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. They added goalies as well with Lukas Dostal, ranked as the top international goalie, and Roman Durny.
Madden, like Yannetti, was most excited about the early picks.