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2018-19 Season in Review: Solving the Ilya Kovalchuk Enigma

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“Like I said, he’s the head coach and he’s responsible for result.” -Kovalchuk on Willie Desjardins

Los Angeles Kings v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With the 2018-19 NHL season firmly in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look back at what we learned about the players of the Los Angeles Kings. How did they fare in a down season? What’s next for each of them? Who will still be here on opening day? Join us as we take a look back at the season, try to figure out what went wrong, and see where we go from here. Today we look at the enigma of Ilya Kovalchuk. How much blame does interim coach Willie Desjardins deserve? Was it a case of being away from the big game too long?


It all started so good...

But then, as the spring passed and I watched the Blues win the Stanley Cup after starting from a worse place on January 2 than the Kings, everything I observed during the 2018-19 season congealed into one homogeneous disdainful memory. I could wax poetic in my hockey Edgar Allan Poe mode about the season and the Willie D. debacle (again), but it’s time to look at Ilya Kovalchuk.

Somewhere in that homogenized reflection sits Kovalchuk who was once considered the de facto equal of Evgeni Malkin (only without the playoff success). Last season, Kovalchuk, the player, morphed into some sort of hockey Greek tragedy titled the “Ilya Situation.”

How did he get there?

Although the team was spiraling down at 5-8-1—good enough to get head coach John Stevens run after 99 regular season and playoff games—Kovalchuk posted a point-a-game line of 14 points (5G, 9A), minus 6, 14.7 shooting percentage, 18:56 average time on ice. This included a three-point (1G, 2A) performance in Willie Desjardins’ Kings interim coaching debut, a 4-1 demolition of the Anaheim Ducks.

Then it all went south.

Even after that impressive audition, Kovalchuk became the charter member in Willie D.’s doghouse. Desjardins instantly put Kovalchuk to the third line and placed him on the second power play unit. Kovalchuk’s average playing time dropped down from 14:35, culminating in playing 6:20 and 9:05 in back-to-back wins against Edmonton and Vancouver. Kovalchuk registered zero points in the ten games after the Anaheim win and opted to undergo an ankle procedure, presumably a better option than toiling on the third and fourth lines with the likes of Michael Amadio and Nate Thompson as his centermen.

Under Willie D. (who had a long history of doghousing Russian players up in Vancouver), Kovalchuk toiled away as an overqualified Black Ace for the Kings the rest of the way. The third and fourth line role was so far beneath him, nobody could fathom what in the world was happening in Los Angeles. Poor Kovalchuk, signed to a three-year, $18.75 million deal, as a primary offensive weapon to be used on the first line and log extensive power play minutes had no impact on the games after game 13. Willie D. had no real defense for how he deployed Kovalchuk, even using the matchup strategy to somehow explain why Kovalchuk logged one-quarter of the time that Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter did even though he controlled the last change at home.

The confounding feud between Willie D. and Kovalchuk culminated in being scratched in three out of four March games before being left behind on the late season Canada road trip so that he could “work on his skills” while the Kings let the young guys play in his place. The only catch was that the young guys hardly played (or were scratched) and Kovalchuk went on a scorched earth campaign against Willie D. after posting this Instagram nugget, tipping his hat to all of the “ice cream lovers” out there:

Kovalchuk opened up to the Athletic and seemed to be counting down the days when he would be liberated as the scapegoat for the Kings season, saying “It’s another challenge for me. I’m even going to be more motivated now. It happens. I don’t think it’s true. Like it’s not fair to me but I’m not going to cry on the pillow. The sun’s up. The kids are in school. They’re happy. That’s the most important thing. I will find a way to go through it, that’s for sure.”

The season ended on a high note of sorts for the Kings as they beat the playoff-bound Vegas Golden Knights with Kovalchuk leading the way and Kings announcer Alex Faust proclaiming, “Ilya Kovalchuk’s still got it...!“:

Kovalchuk chose to return to the international scene at the IIHF World Championships (obviously to rehab his image) and succeed very well:

EXPECTATIONS

How do the Kings fix the Ilya Kovalchuk Situation? Before we dive in there, a little history lesson is needed...

The Kings have been down this road before with another hall of fame number 17: Jari Kurri. He was a Wayne Gretzky favorite, and why wouldn’t he be? In 10 years with the Great One, his per season averages were 47 goals and 56 assists with a 21.9 (!) shooting percentage. Then Kurri went to Europe in 1990 for a season in a contract dispute, after which the Kings were able to tic-tac-toe a trade to land him in Los Angeles for five years.

Most will recall the glowing words at a recent Kings Legend night heaped upon him, but Kurri on the Kings was not a good look. His averages were 21 goals and 37 assists with a 13.7 shooting percentage. You don’t need an advanced analytics degree to see these were are massive declines that no one could spin positive.

Based on that alone, you could have expected Kovalchuk to drop off after five years away from the NHL. Instead there were projections of 25 to 30 goals last year and dreams of a prolonged Stanley Cup run. Both of those dreams turned out to be fantasies.

We wanted to remember the Kovalchuk the Kings coveted in 2010 when they tried to sign him before bowing out to the New Jersey Devils record breaking offer. We want to remember Kovlachuk’s three NHL All-Star Games, six seasons of scoring 40 or more goals, and netting 30 or more goals nine times. We wanted to remember the player who had 27 points in 32 playoff games, including 19 during the Devils sprint to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. Shoot, we would have settled for the 35-year-old Kovalchuk who led the scoring-challenged KHL with 63 points (31 G/ 32A) in 53 games the year before his return.

We wanted to remember the first 12 years of his career, when Kovalchuk’s production was hardly different from Malkin’s production. Take a look.

Player A (reg. season): 816 Games, 417 Goals, 399 Assists, 816 Points, 142 Power Play Goals, 13.9 Shooting Percentage, 21:33 Average Time on Ice.

Player B (reg. season): 852 Games, 391 Goals, 611 Assists, 1002 Points, 142 Power Play Goals, 13.6 Shooting Percentage, 20:01 Average Time on Ice.

Most of you figured out that Player A is Kovalchuk, but you had to think about it. Factor in that Kovalchuk was a one-man wrecking crew while Malkin had Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and a quality D and you can understand why the Kings tried to sign him multiple times over the year. All that being said, 2018-19 was nothing like Kovalchuk’s first 11 NHL years or the subsequent five KHL years. Some was his fault and some was not, so let’s dive in.

FIXING THE FUTURE

Let’s face facts. There were high expectations last year. Kovalchuk was supposed to be the missing piece to propel a 98-point Kings team who lost four straight playoff games by one goal to the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up. That’s the reason he chose to sign here.

Instead, he was stuck with a lousy coach and didn’t bother to respond to the challenge of being blamed at every turn and being a regular healthy scratch. Excuses Reasons aside, his season line made him look more like the Kings’ Jari Kurri than the Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk:

64 Games Played, 34 Points (16G / 18A), -26, 10 PIM, 4 PPG, 11.3 Shooting Percentage, 1039 Minutes Time On Ice, 16:14 Average Time On Ice.

Here’s where everyone needs to settle down. He also didn’t plan on everyone getting old overnight. Anze Kopitar went from finishing third in the Hart Trophy voting to the worst offensive season of his career. Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli both had stretches of 20 plus games where they didn’t score a goal, and let’s not even bring up the defenseman. Soak in these 2018-19 top forward stat lines:

  • Anze Kopitar—81 Games Played, 60 Points (22G / 38A), -20, 30 PIM, 1 PPG, 14.1 Shooting Percentage, 1807 Minutes Time On Ice, 22:18 Average Time On Ice.
  • Dustin Brown—72 Games Played, 51 Points (22G / 29A), -17, 24 PIM, 9 PPG, 12.2 Shooting Percentage, 1469 Minutes Time On Ice, 20:24 Average Time On Ice.
  • Tyler Toffoli—82 Games Played, 34 Points (13G / 21A), -16, 23 PIM, 3 PPG, 5.8 Shooting Percentage, 1411 Minutes Time On Ice, 17:13 Average Time On Ice.
  • Alex Iafallo—82 Games Played, 33 Points (15G / 18A), -17, 22 PIM, 1 PPG, 10.1 Shooting Percentage, 1380 Minutes Time On Ice, 16:50 Average Time On Ice.
  • Jeff Carter—76 Games Played, 33 Points (13G / 20A), -20, 42 PIM, 5 PPG, 7.5 Shooting Percentage, 1380 Minutes Time On Ice, 18:09 Average Time On Ice.
  • Adrian Kempe—81 Games Played, 28 Points (12G / 16A), -10, 50 PIM, 0 PPG, 10.2 Shooting Percentage, 1175 Minutes Time On Ice, 14:30 Average Time On Ice.

A quick 2017-18 vs. 2018-19 recap:

  • Kopitar—32 points less and on ice for 41 more even strength goals against.
  • Brown—On ice for 48 more even strength goals against.
  • Toffoli—11 less goals, on ice for 25 more even strength goals, and a 60 per cent drop in his shooting percentage.
  • Iafallo—On ice for 27 more even strength goals against.
  • Carter—Scored the same amount of goals in 49 more games and went from a plus 4 to a minus 20.
  • Kempe—On ice for 21 more even strength goals against.
  • Also, Drew Doughty went from a first team all star, second in the Norris Trophy, and 15th in the Hart voting, to a minus 34.

What do these numbers mean? It means that Kovalchuk was the third highest goal scorer and the fourth highest point producer on the Kings roster last year. That means that all of the handwringing about the decline of Kovalchuk really amounted to a 22-car pileup on the 110 Freeway on the way to Staples Center. All of those advanced stats people out there saying Kovalchuk had the worst per-60 performances on the team neglect to tell you everyone was a disaster—from upper management to the coaching to the product on the ice.

But that was last year and this year coming up should be a rebound year for nearly everyone. If Kovalchuk is committed to living in Beverly Hills and making the Kings a playoff contender, here is the three-step plan:

Be smarterI refuse to believe that The Spiral occurred to Kovalchuk and the entire Kings team overnight. However, if you examine NHL history you’ll see a trend that somewhere between the 900th and 1,100th career game, The Spiral occurs for everyone (except maybe Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Ovechkin). Like a diamond being made, the NHL career is intense pressure over time and the truth is ultimately your career drops off the cliff. No one beats father time. I watched every Russian minute of the 2018 Olympics and the 2019 IIHF World Championship and I agree with Alex Faust in the sentiment that Ilya Kovalchuk still has it. But with two years and $12.5 million remaining on a contract with a no movement clause, it’s time to get smarter. Last season needs to be a mirage. Accepting Willie D.’s bullying should not be on anyone’s agenda. It was premeditated and immediate. No one produced for the worst coach since Jim Anderson. Kovalchuk wasn’t used the way he should have been and yet somehow he was both third on the team in goals and first on the team in criticism received from the local media. That being said, coaching feuds cannot define his tenure in Los Angeles.

Listen to Todd McLellan(Allow me to address Ilya Kovalchuk directly…) Hey Ilya, you know how you listened to [IIHF Russian Coach] Ilya Vorobiev this past spring about you movement up and down the lines, your playing time, and your role on the team? You know how you accepted it all and you were the leader game in and game out? You need to do the same with McLellan. He’s the forward whisperer. He’s the guy who made Pavel Datsyuk into a two-way force for Detroit. He’s the coach who made Mike Babcock look like $50 million dollars. Everyone says he’s a no-nonsense coach whom they love playing for. He expects a lot and demands you fit into an accountability role for his teams. You have a team filled with players who have won Stanley Cup and want to win like you do. Try the team approach, you don’t have to do it all yourself or be that unicorn who does everything different just because. (End of speech.)

Be Accountable—Take a look at this sequence:

Playing some two-way hockey can be pretty fun, can’t it? Teammates love it, fans love it, it creates offense, and this year, Todd McLellan demands it. Take what he said when he was hired:

“I accepted that responsibility when I agreed to come here. But that has to be a partnership between player and coach. They have to accept the poking and prodding that a coaching staff is going to do and I think we’re all responsible for our attitude and our behavior at the rink. It’s not just the coaching staff. If the players are making those comments, some of that’s on them as well. They just need to elevate their standards a little bit more and I have to help them do that.”

I know Kovalchuk was brought in to be West Coast Ovechkin on the power play and roam the offensive zone. But as we learned in the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup-winning run, even Ovechkin plays defense, blocks shots, and lays out the body to win. This year, Kovalchuk needs to dedicate himself to being a 200-foot player. Yes, Willie D. intimated that this style was needed by everyone on the Kings, but no one listened to him for reasons discussed a million times in these very pages. It will be different in 2019-20. It’s a fair trade for him to give this a shot in the very same way he did in the KHL and the early years with Atlanta.

Trust your coach and your teammates and they will trust you. In the end, let’s be real, people, NHL superstars are judged after their careers on their playoff success. Joe Thornton, Henrik Lundqvist, and now even Connor McDavid are judged a little bit heavier for not carrying their teams to the big prize. Now Kovalchuk has a chance to be a leader as a second-year member of the Kings. He should mentor the kids—there will be a lot now—and show them how to score. Kovalchuk can be that star off the ice as well. You know the one where Malkin gives up his beloved 71 and Ovechkin defers the captaincy to Kolvachuk?

Those kinds of accountability go a long way to lead the Kings back to the playoffs. And, as we know getting into the playoffs has worked well for the organization in the last decade.

KOVALCHUK GEMS