Ahead of training camp this season, Todd McLellan and Ilya Kovalchuk met for lunch near the Kings practice facility in El Segundo.
Over the meal, they talked about Kovalchuk’s past, including a 34-point debut with the Kings last season which he occasionally was benched by interim coach Willie Dejardins.
They talked about Kovalchuk’s family, who moved with him to Southern California, back when the former No. 1 overall draft pick and one-time league-leading scorer was thought to be the missing piece for a Kings team still expected to be contenders.
Most importantly, McLellan and Kovalchuk discussed an upcoming season they hoped would be beneficial for both parties. As the new coach picked up the tab, he tried to plot a more promising future for the veteran forward.
“I talked to him about how I would likely use him, at least to start with,” McLellan said in September, recalling their meeting. “Then after that, he and all the players dictate how much they play.”
Barely a month into the season, however, Kovalchuk and the Kings are seemingly back in the same sticky situation as the end of last season. The team is in last place, Kovalchuk is struggling and was a healthy scratch Tuesday night when the Kings beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1.
The Kings ended a skid at three games behind goals by Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Sean Walker (an empty-netter) and 27 saves from Jonathan Quick.
Tuesday afternoon, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported the Kings are planning to keep Kovalchuk out of the lineup for the foreseeable future. David Pagnotta of the Fourth Period subsequently said the team is exploring trade options for the 36-year-old forward, whose contract carries a $6.25-million annual salary-cap hit and, according to CapFriendly.com, includes a no-movement clause this season. Another report linked Kovalchuk with a move back to the Russian KHL, where he played before signing with the Kings.
Asked before Tuesday’s game about the rumors, Kings general manager Rob Blake offered little information regarding Kovalchuk’s long-term future with the club.
“I don’t know what the lineup is Thursday, I don’t know what the lineup is Saturday,” Blake said. “I know the lineup tonight. He’s a healthy scratch. Unfortunately, everybody knows before warm-ups.”
Blake said he has not received a trade request from Kovalchuk and noted the player’s no-movement clause, which Kovalchuk was noncommittal on potentially waiving it ahead of last season’s trade deadline.
Blake, who met with Kovalchuk on Tuesday afternoon, left open the possibility the winger could return to the lineup in the Kings’ next game.
“We’re in last place right now, so we’ve changed a lot of lineups,” Blake said. “We did this with Tyler [Toffoli]. We did it with [Nikolai] Prokhorkin. We did it with Adrian Kempe tonight. … We’re trying to find the combinations that work to try and score some goals.”
Although Kovalchuk’s nine points rank fourth on the team, his minus-10 rating is the worst on the roster. After tallying six points in the first four games, he has only three in the last 13.
“Kovy’s on board,” McLellan said. “Just like the rest of the players, he’ll get his opportunity to come back in. We have to treat him like any other player.”
McLellan has made his expectations for Kovalchuk clear. After a loss to the Buffalo Sabres last month in which Kovalchuk repeatedly missed the net from high-probability scoring areas, McLellan said bluntly: “We’ve got a guy that has scored 400 NHL goals with a slapper from the hash marks. We pay him handsomely to put those in. He’s got to do that.”