In a gray suit and trimmed beard, Ilya Kovalchuk sat in the second row of the Honda Center press box on Thursday night. From high above the ice, he watched again as the Kings played without him.
Afterward, he left Anaheim with the rest of the team. The next morning, he boarded the Kings’ charter flight to Pittsburgh for the start of a five-game road trip. As he had been doing for more than a month, Kovalchuk continued to go through the motions.
But on Monday, his stint with the club officially came to a close.
The Kings put Kovalchuk on unconditional waivers, drawing the curtain on an 81-game experience that was as brief as it was bumpy. It’s an ending that feels both premature and long overdue.
Having been scratched in 18 consecutive games dating back to Nov. 9, Kovalchuk received a scheduled bonus reportedly worth $2.65 million on Sunday before finally parting ways with the team.
“Ilya Kovalchuk has left the team and been placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract with the club,” the Kings wrote in a statement.
Once Kovalchuk clears waivers, he will be free to sign with another NHL franchise or return to the KHL in his native Russia. After arriving in Los Angeles last summer as the potential missing piece for a club that still considered itself a contender, he didn’t even make it halfway through his three-year, $18.75-million contract.
With 43 points and a minus-36 rating in his 81 games with the team, Kovalchuk wasn’t the only underperforming veteran potentially clogging up the Kings’ transition to a new generation. His hefty contract, however, made him a uniquely difficult roadblock to remove.
His $4.25-million salary next season — which would have been the third-highest on the team — handicapped much of his trade value. And because he was 35 when he signed his deal last summer, any buyout of his contract would not have negated his $6.25-million cap hit.
The Kings will still be responsible for the latter. But, with likely another rebuilding season on the horizon, it appeared unlikely they’d spend to the cap anyway next year. The club seems willing to let other aging players on more tolerable terms run out the remainder of their contracts, but it decided Kovalchuk had become a burden too heavy to bear. The Kings will now save on what’s left of his salary and be able to reassign his roster spot to a player who is actually part of their future plans.
“The situation with Kovy is a tough one for everybody,” coach Todd McLellan said earlier this month, vouching for Kovalchuk’s character amid his uncertain circumstances. “I can tell you that he’s been outstanding. Kovy’s situation has nothing to do with him as a person or his work ethic or anything like that. He’s outstanding. He works as hard as anybody right now.”
In a separate roster move Monday, the Kings recalled 21-year-old defenseman Kale Clague to the NHL for the first time in his career, and reassigned fellow defenseman Paul LaDue to their minor-league affiliate, the Ontario Reign. The roster spot Kovalchuk vacated will remain open for now, leaving the team with 22 players on its roster.
During his debut season with the club, Kovalchuk clashed with interim coach Willie Desjardins — “After Willie came here,” Kovalchuk said last March, “I don’t have a chance” — en route to a 16-goal campaign, his lowest total in a full NHL season.
McLellan, who was hired this offseason, began training camp hoping he could help Kovalchuk resurrect his career. But the former No. 1 overall pick continued to lack consistency, scoring only three times in the season’s first 17 games.
On Monday morning, Kovalchuk posted a picture of himself on Instagram. He was smiling. In Russian, the caption read: “So, what’s next?”
Kings fans — wondering how Kovalchuk’s promise devolved into such disappointment — will be asking the same question.