There are more than a few flecks of gray in Ilya Kovalchuk’s hair now, five years after he left the New Jersey Devils and the NHL to play in his native Russia.
In another sure sign of the passage of time, the pace in the NHL has become much faster during his absence. Kovalchuk acknowledged that Friday, before the Kings opened the season with a 3-2 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks at Staples Center, but he’s not prepared to concede anything.
“I’m trying to keep up. I’m young 35,” said Kovalchuk, who signed a three-year, $18.75-million contract last summer with the goal-starved Kings. “It is [faster], but speed is not everything. You’ve got to understand the game to be in the right position and sometimes less speed is better. You’ve got to use your tools, what you know the best, what you can do the best, and play the game like the coaches ask you.”
Kovalchuk’s mission is to score goals, especially on the power play. The Kings ranked 16th in the NHL last season by scoring an average of 2.89 goals per game — they were 17th in power-play efficiency at 20.4% — and that wasn’t enough to support their league-leading defense.
They had to change something after they were shut out by Vegas in the first and last games of a first-round playoff sweep and scored only three goals. Unable to develop a young scorer, they signed an old one. Kovalchuk has done it before: He piled up 417 goals and 816 points in 816 games with Atlanta and New Jersey and he was voted the most valuable player in Russia’s gold-medal triumph at the Pyeongchang Olympics, a tournament weakened by the absence of NHL players. Whether he still can score enough goals in the NHL to make an impact might determine the Kings’ fate this season.
Tempting though it might be to make an instant judgment, it will take time to reach a fair verdict. Kovalchuk played 20 minutes 15 seconds Friday, including 5:36 on the power play, and was credited with two shots on goal, three attempts that were blocked, and one shot that missed the net.
He’s still adjusting to unfamiliar sights and sounds and linemates; he said after the morning skate Friday that while playing an exhibition game at Staples Center he felt like he had played in a football stadium, so cavernous is his new home arena compared to those in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. The ice surfaces of NHL rinks are 15 feet narrower, at 85 feet, and that’s another recalibration for him to make.
“I think to be honest with you, we knew training camp was going to be a process that he had to go through to get acclimated to the game over here again. Smaller rink, tighter checking. And you know training camp can be a grind,” coach John Stevens said. “He did some things and showed some flashes in preseason that kind of get you excited. I think the big thing for us was just trying to figure out who he’s best suited to play with.”
Kovalchuk played the right side on Friday with center Anze Kopitar and left wing Alex Iafallo and afterward drew praise from Stevens. Kovalchuk said he felt much better than he had during exhibition games but was critical of his and the team’s 0-for-five performance on the power play. “We’ve got to be better with the tools we’ve got,” Kovalchuk said after the game. “We’ve got to be better than what we’re at right now.”
Defenseman Drew Doughty said management’s commitment to spending money on Kovalchuk influenced his own decision to re-sign with the Kings for eight years. “He’s going to bring some great goal-scoring for us and good things in the room,” Doughty said. “He’s a lot of fun to be around, both on and off the ice. ... Very good at moving laterally and making moves around guys and opening space up for everyone else, so we’re very happy to have him and can’t wait to see what he can do for us.”
They’ll have to wait a little longer, but if Kovalchuk can recapture his scoring magic, Staples Center could be a showcase for the Kings and the Lakers, with Kovalchuk on the ice and LeBron James on the court. “He’s a little bigger,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s great. I think it’s great for the sport market in L.A. It’s already a great sports city but him to come here, I think they became right away the contenders for the title. It will be great to see them play against Golden State. It will be fun.”