Todd McLellan chuckled as he walked down a hallway in the Kings practice facility Thursday morning. When asked about the status of injured forward Ilya Kovalchuk, the coach found a description even vaguer than the NHL’s usual upper-body or lower-body designation.
“Let’s go with ‘middle body,’ ” McLellan said.
Kovalchuk’s case can be treated with such levity. The 36-year-old forward left practice early Wednesday after he “tweaked something,” McLellan told reporters, and won’t be in the lineup for the Kings’ third preseason game Thursday night. But, according to McLellan, Kovalchuk isn’t expected to be out more than a few days. At this stage, his ailment is hardly a concern.
The Kings have more serious injury issues to worry about.
Left-handed defenseman Derek Forbort has been the biggest absence during the first week of training camp. A back injury has kept him off the ice, made his status for the start of the season unclear and prompted the Kings to sign veteran Ben Hutton in an unexpected preseason roster move this week.
“[Forbort is] struggling to get healthy right now,” McLellan said Tuesday night. “No one has any idea on his timeline.”
Without Forbort, who usually partners with Drew Doughty, the Kings’ depth on the left side of the blue line was dwindling. Alec Martinez and free-agent signee Joakim Ryan were the only other left-handed defensemen with at least 50 career NHL games.
So, on Tuesday night, the team went out and signed Hutton to a one-year, $1.5-million deal. The former Vancouver Canucks defenseman, who scored 20 points in 69 games last year, arrived in Los Angeles on Wednesday night and skated with the team Thursday morning.
“I got to learn how to be a pro, from guys like [Daniel] and [Henrik] Sedin,” Hutton said of his four seasons in Vancouver, the team that drafted him in the fifth round in 2012 and brought him into the NHL in 2015-16. “Unfortunately, we went our separate ways.”
Hutton called his offseason “stressful.” Though he was third among Canucks defensemen in scoring last year, he also suffered a career-worst minus-23 rating and wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer. He and the Kings reportedly discussed a potential contract this summer but nothing came to fruition. Then, he sat around in his hometown in Ottawa and watched roster spots around the league fill up.
“It was going OK mid-summer,” he said. “I was doing the same thing as every other player, getting ready for next season, training, skating. Then more and more players kept going away to camp, then camp started. I was like, ‘Uh oh, I’m really stressing.’ ”
But with Forbort sidelined, and fellow defenseman Paul LaDue slowly working his way back onto the ice from an offseason knee procedure — LaDue joined the team’s main morning skate Thursday but wasn’t included in the team’s lineup for Thursday night’s game — the Kings were in need of another defenseman with NHL experience.
Hutton was a perfect fit, giving the Kings a seasoned stopgap that will prevent them from rushing one of their young defensemen into NHL action prematurely.
“He’ll provide us an NHL presence,” McLellan said of Hutton. “Somebody that’s played a number of games, he’s played in the Pacific Division, he’s been able to play 15 to 20 minutes per night.
“For me, he’s a mobile puck mover. Like any player, there are things you’d like to think he can do better. But he does bring some valuable tools to the table.”