The idea was for Ilya Kovalchuk to play on the top line, or at least play top-line minutes, when he signed with the Kings.
It seemed straightforward but, much like the Kings’ season, it quickly changed and devolved to a crisis before it settled down. Lately, it’s found a resting place although the Kings still rest in last place in the Western Conference.
On the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown for the last five games, Kovalchuk has a goal and three assists in that span. Not surprisingly, he’s in a better frame of mind with the expanded role.
“When you play more, you’re feeling better, you’re more in the game, you’re creating more for your partners and for yourself,” Kovalchuk said.
His line has produced five goals and seven assists since they were put together on Jan. 5 against the Edmonton Oilers. It’s the front-line offensive identity the Kings need, and one that didn’t click when former coach John Stevens tried Kovalchuk with Kopitar and Brown at the beginning of the season.
“It’s one of those things where it just didn’t work out, and the way that thing went, we got separated for a bit,” Kopitar said. “Sometimes that’s what it is. You get put back together and it works. It’s funny how that goes.”
“That thing” is a reference to how rapidly the Kings’ demise unfolded and how complicit they were in it as it led to the firing of Stevens.
Kovalchuk’s goal Tuesday was his eighth, a total he would have passed in October in his prime. But in his comeback season from five years spent in Russia, Kovalchuk was benched by interim coach Willie Desjardins and sidelined in December because of an ankle infection.
At the time, Kovalchuk pointedly but professionally voiced his displeasure with the former. He needed to be on the ice to score, but he couldn’t complain when the team wasn’t winning. Kovalchuk this week sounded like he’s found an understanding with Desjardins when asked whether it’s about getting more playing time.
“Yeah, but sometimes you need to deserve to be on the ice,” Kovalchuk said. “You [need to] deserve the coaching trust. He came here. He didn’t know me. I was just working every day, because I’m not going to change myself at 35 years old, the way I play.”
Desjardins gave Kovalchuk his third-most playing time this season with nearly 21 minutes last Saturday. Kovalchuk’s per-game average would be more than 16 minutes 51 seconds if the Kings got more power plays. They had the fourth-fewest opportunities in the NHL through Tuesday.
That concerns Desjardins. But he’s no longer preoccupied with how much and where to play Kovalchuk.
“It gets more consistent once you stay with the line a little bit,” Desjardins said. “I think Kovalchuk, with those two guys, he’s pretty creative and I think he can add to them.”
It’s still unique for goalie Jack Campbell to return to Dallas and see the team that drafted him 11th in 2010. He carried the pressure of a high draft pick, through six years in the organization, which led to the reinvention of his game and rebirth of his career with the Kings.
If it happens, Thursday would be his first game against Dallas and his first start at American Airlines Center.
“That would kind of be the icing on the cake as far as turning the page, which I feel like I’ve done,” Campbell said. “It’s just kind of the last thing — playing those guys — and it would be fun to play against some of the top players, [Tyler] Seguin and [Jamie] Benn and all those guys. Any time I’m here, it’s fun to beat them, that’s for sure.”
Campbell draws inspiration from starter Jonathan Quick, and Tuesday rated high. Quick made 40 saves against Minnesota.
“Arguably one of the best games I’ve seen him play,” Campbell said. “It was just crazy.”
When: Thursday, 5:30 p.m. PST.
On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: iHeartRadio (LA Kings Audio Network).