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It’s more bench time than ice time lately for Kings’ Ilya Kovalchuk

It’s more bench time than ice time lately for Kings’ Ilya Kovalchuk
Kings left wing Ilya Kovalchuk has been relegated to fourth-line duties with the Kings searching for a lineup that will work. (Michael Owen Baker / Associated Press)

In an 18-year professional career, this was a first for Kings forward Ilya Kovalchuk.

He has rarely been a spectator late in games. Even if he has had an off night, his threat to score warrants sending him over the boards.

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That changed Sunday. He spent the third period stapled to the bench and finished with 6 minutes 20 seconds of playing time. Kovalchuk wasn’t subtle when asked about keeping a positive attitude while sitting on the bench.

“I don’t know how to be on the bench because it’s the first time in my career [that] I sit there for the third period,” he said. “But I’m that kind of guy, you know? I don’t care. We were winning, and that’s all that matters.”

The shrinking role of Kovalchuk, 35, has become a significant matter given the investment the Kings have in him: a three-year, $18.75-million contract they gave him in July. Kovalchuk has been banished to the fourth line and second power-play unit, and barely gets time on the latter.

In an email, general manager Rob Blake declined to comment on Kovalchuk, his primary free-agent addition. Kovalchuk’s reduction in playing time unfolds only 23 games into the season and maybe raises questions about his future with the Kings.

Interim coach Willie Desjardins has talked about trying to get Kovalchuk going offensively, but that’s not possible if Kovalchuk isn’t on the ice. Asked about that predicament, Kovalchuk said, “I think you answered your question.”

Desjardins said after the Kings’ 5-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday that benching Kovalchuk had to do with matchups before he ended his answer by saying, “I just think other guys were going tonight.”

Generally speaking, that has been an anomaly this season. It’s indicative of the 30th-ranked Kings offense that Kovalchuk remains their co-leader in points (14) even though he has gone nine games in a row without a point. His five goals are third on the team, but only one is on the power play. His booming shot has barely been utilized and the Kings are 28th in man-advantage goals.

A big number next to Kovalchuk’s name is his minus-13 rating. Never known as a Selke Trophy candidate, he acknowledged that “at 35, I don’t think I can change much in my game,” but also said he’ll work hard to get back on the other side of the ledger.

That would be more of a challenge if Kovalchuk plays fewer than 10 minutes. Kovalchuk said he has had conversations with Desjardins about what he needs to work on to get more ice time.

“It’s between us, but obviously the way things were going, he needed to change something,” Kovalchuk said. “And he did, and we won [Sunday] night. If we’re going to win the rest of the games, then I will play six minutes.”

A chance to win the Stanley Cup was a big factor that Kovalchuk cited in signing with the Kings. He hasn’t commented on whether he regrets that move, after five years away from the NHL. The season just passed the quarter-pole mark, and he’s maintaining a professional approach — even from the bench.

“Just work,” he said. “That’s it. That’s all that I can do. I can control just what I can on the ice. I try to work hard every day, get myself better. We’ll see what’s going to happen.”

UP NEXT

AT VANCOUVER

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When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: iHeartRadio (LA Kings Audio Network).

Update: Sheldon Rempal was recalled. Desjardins returns to Vancouver for the first time since he was fired as Canucks coach in 2017. Vancouver’s Brock Boeser (groin) could play if he doesn’t have a setback.

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