Ilya Kovalchuk slipped on his white Kings practice jersey Wednesday morning. He went through drills, skated laps around the rink, stretched out in the post-practice cool-down.
Afterward, his gear was neatly stacked in his stall, and a team staff member tended to his yellow-laced skates before hanging them back in his locker. Kovalchuk worked out as well, retreating to the team’s gym inside its El Segundo practice facility.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Kovalchuk was still a member of the Kings — even as rumors and reports indicating the contrary continued to swirl.
“He came to practice today, he worked hard,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “I thought he had a real good practice. … I think that gives you an indication of how he’s reacted, which is a good sign for all of us.”
Kovalchuk’s future with the club remains unclear. On Tuesday night, the 36-year-old forward was a healthy scratch in the team’s 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild.
Earlier in the day, multiple reports surfaced claiming the Kings would be holding Kovalchuk out the lineup for the foreseeable future and that they were looking for a potential trade partner to take him. On Wednesday, the Hockey News reported that the club will be granting Kovalchuk a release instead.
On Tuesday night, Kings general manager Rob Blake declined to give any specifics regarding Kovalchuk’s long-term status. He said Kovalchuk, who has a no-movement clause in his contract, had not asked for a trade. Blake didn’t rule out the possibility of the forward playing in the Kings’ game on Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings.
McLellan was similarly vague when asked Wednesday about any potential return to the lineup for Kovalchuk, who has nine points and a minus-10 rating this season.
“We’ll make a lineup decision tomorrow and we’ll keep going forward,” McLellan said. “Coaches have a tendency to use the same group after a win, and then reward that group. So, I don’t know what our lineup will be tomorrow. We’ll see where it goes.
“The group did a good job of focusing on the task at hand. I thought Kovy handled himself well and everybody was prepared to play and move forward. The game is a cruel game sometimes. … It’s not comfortable. Nobody wants to pull a player out of the lineup.”
This wasn’t how Kovalchuk’s time with the Kings was supposed to go. After a five-season hiatus from the NHL, the former No. 1 overall pick and two-time 50-goal scorer was lured by the Kings from the Russian KHL with a three-year, $18.75-million contract. He was supposed to be the missing piece on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
Instead, he has become a high-priced burden that the franchise is now reportedly trying to separate itself from.
Moving Kovalchuk would be complicated. Not only does his no-movement clause require the Kings to get his approval for any trade, but the market for an aging and inconsistent winger with multiple seasons left on his contract could be scarce.
And because he was 35 when he signed the deal, Kovalchuk’s $6.25-million annual average salary will continue to count against the Kings’ cap even if they choose to buy him out.
There have been no indications of any recent attitude problem with Kovalchuk, who had only 34 points last year in a debut season with the Kings that saw him often dropped to the third or fourth lines and occasionally scratched by former interim coach Willie Desjardins.
McLellan maintained that, even amid the recent uncertainty, Kovalchuk is bought-in to the team. Captain Anze Kopitar echoed similar sentiments on Tuesday night.
“Obviously not a great situation,” Kopitar said. “Kovy is a good guy. There’s nothing that’s wrong with the attitude or anything. He wants to win, he wants to do the best, he’s a really good guy off the ice. Everybody can probably say that about him.”
How much longer Kings players will be able to call Kovalchuk a teammate, however, remains unclear. He was still around the team Wednesday, but there’s no guarantee that will be the case moving forward.
“It’s just for whatever reason, it’s not working on the ice,” Kopitar said. “That’s about all I can really put it and all I can say.”