THE CASE FOR KOVALCHUK
Legendary left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk logged only six minutes and twenty seconds in his last game for the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday, and has been under fire for what some are calling a disappointing return to the NHL. Los Angeles Times sports columnist and 2005 Elmer Ferguson Hockey Hall of Fame honoree Helene Elliott chatted with me for Sport-Express on local reaction to coach Willie Desjardins’ treatment of Kovalchuk, and what lies ahead for both Kovy and the struggling Kings.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Media in both Russia and the United States have openly criticized Ilya Kovalchuk’s recent performance. Do you think he’s deserving of the blast?
Helene Elliott (HE): It’s really interesting because he had a very good start to the season personally—the team didn’t. He was very productive and leading in scoring. In fact, he still leads the LA Kings in scoring. But they fired the coach [John Stevens] and hired a new coach [Willie Desjardins] who has not been playing Kovalchuk very much.
Last night [versus the Edmonton Oilers], Kovalchuk did not play at all in the third period. He played only six minutes and twenty seconds of the game total—and that’s very, very low. The game before that, Kovalchuk played only 27 seconds on the powerplay, which is surprising because his ability to score on the powerplay was one of the reasons that the Kings mentioned when they signed him. He’s always been very effective on the powerplay throughout his career, and the Kings needed to improve in that aspect. The new coach is not giving him much time or opportunity to play on the powerplay, or play at all. Fans here are very surprised and kind of bothered by that as well.
GK: When John Stevens was in charge of the Kings, Kovalchuk was racking up 1 point per game at least. If he is suddenly playing worse, could it be a question of mismanagement?
HE: [Desjardins] is a bit old school. I think he has a narrow view of the game. He has repeatedly said that Kovalchuk is a scorer, not a defensive player—so in a close game if the Kings are winning, he does not feel comfortable putting Kovalchuk out there. He does not believe that Kovalchuk will help to protect a lead.
I think it has been bothering Kovalchuk. We reporters have been trying to talk to him and he has declined. I am sure that he is upset by this; he has great pride and has had many accomplishments in the NHL and in the KHL—but here he is, not even on the ice in the most important time in the game.
GK: Is this type of disciplinary action precedented for such an experienced—not to mention expensive—player?
HE: It happens mostly when the players are older or in the later stages of their careers. Coaches will sometimes think that the players have gotten slower. There is such a big emphasis on speed right now in the National Hockey League, so coaches will give less time to older players. I can remember Vincent Lecavalier, Jarome Iginla who, in the late stages of their careers, did not get as much as ice time as they had in previous seasons.
But this one is really noteworthy because the Kings spent so much money to sign Kovalchuk—$18.75 million over three years. That was a big investment, their biggest move after last season. Again he started well, and now he’s not even getting out onto the ice in the third period.
GK: Could these coaching decisions be signaling the end of his career in LA?
HE: I think something is going to happen pretty soon in terms of Ilya sitting down with the coach and/or the general manager. Something will have to happen because it’s not fair to him or the team. And it’s not a good arrangement right now to be paying so much money to a player who isn’t playing.
GK: What is the probability of a trade? Who could afford him at this point?
HE: Well, exactly. There are teams who might want to wait and look at Kovalchuk as someone who could help them as a final piece to win the championship. But they might wait until later in the season when the burden of the salary cap hit will be less. Right now it’s a very difficult situation, but one that probably needs to be resolved soon.
GK: Do any specific teams come to mind?
HE: It’s tough to say because it’s still kind of early…although in the Kings’ situation, it’s probably too late for them to make the playoffs.The teams with the best shot to win the championship probably are not looking right now. If you look at a team like Nashville, Buffalo or Tampa Bay, there is no sense of urgency for them to make a move. They’re building up leads, pulling away from other teams. I suspect they have a little bit of time with regards to any thinking they will do about adding a player.
GK: Is a buyout a feasible option right now?
HE: That’s a difficult question because the NHL has different rules for player contracts over the age of 35. I think the bigger thing is that it would be General Manager Rob Blake admitting a huge mistake, and I am not sure he is ready to do that yet.
GK: Dustin Brown was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We have never had a player quite like Kovy.” You covered this squad when Brown led them to Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. What hole in the lineup do you think he is referring to here?
HE: I think that the role that was envisioned for Kovalchuk was powerplay specialist. He still has that wonderful shot from the circle on the powerplay, and he was effective with it early in the season. I think that he could still be successful and effective, and again, I think that this is something that has to be resolved pretty soon because it is affecting other players on the team as well. The longer you keep him on the bench, the more difficult it is for the coach to say, “We have a powerplay with five minutes left…go out there, Ilya.” He’s been sitting on the bench for fifteen minutes and he’s not warm. It’s difficult for a player to come off of the bench and jump right into it.
GK: Are U.S. fans and the media criticizing other players such as Doughty and Kopitar who earn more than Kovalchuk?
HE: Oh absolutely—people are not just criticizing Kovalchuk. In fact, a lot of the fans have been sympathetic toward him because he was effective early and producing points. I think a lot of the anger has been directed at the General Manager for the way he put this team together. Again, in the NHL, there is a great emphasis on speed, and this team is not particularly fast. They’ve had trouble scoring until Sunday night when they scored five goals. Obviously Kopitar had a good game and Dustin Brown had three goals last night, but until then fans were asking, “Where are these guys? These are veteran players, they are leaders, and they are not contributing.” Tyler Toffoli, Drew Doughty are players who fans were looking at too. So no, it wasn’t Kovalchuk being the sole target of anger here. I think it was pretty well spread around, and again, I think Kovalchuk was getting a lot of sympathy from fans.
GK: Sunday night’s five-goal game aside, have you noticed any other improvements since Desjardins took over?
HE: To be honest, not really. It’s an interesting team because Jonathan Quick, their goaltender, is one of the best in the NHL. He hurt his knee and had surgery, and people said that the team was going to be bad because of that. But it hasn’t been the goaltending. They brought up a young kid named Cal Petersen who has done very, very well. Goaltending has not been the problem here; it has been their inability to score goals.
As you know, hockey players are very superstitious—so they may think, “Well, we got five goals and that will change things now.” But now they have to prove it. LA has a trip this week to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, and those are both tough teams and tough places to play.
GK: If the superstitions are right and fortunes reverse, is hope still lost for a playoff spot?
HE: It’s pretty much lost. It’s not impossible, but statistically it has been proven that teams who are not in a playoff position by American Thanksgiving have a hard time moving into playoff position. This is kind of strange because there is about three quarters of the season left, and yet it’s very difficult in the NHL for teams to move up. Not many teams change places.
LA has made two of the classic moves already: they fired their coach, and they made a trade. They traded away Tanner Pearson, who was a part of their second Stanley Cup team. I think that was a move designed to get the players’ attention—a message that if you don’t play well and meet our expectations, you will be out of here. So maybe that made a little bit of an impression on them; we will need to wait and see.
GK: Who stands a reasonable chance to be head coach next season? We’ve heard the rumors about Joel Quenneville.
HE: We’ve all heard the rumors about Quenneville. I think he might be more inclined to take a team that is a little further along in the rebuilding process. I think the Kings still haven’t admitted to themselves that they are rebuilding. Quenneville is financially set; he does not have to prove anything to anyone. I think [the next move] will be something that intrigues him—a good situation where the talent is already there and all they’re missing is a good, strategic coach like he is. I’m not sure the Kings’ talent fit that description right now.
GK: Speaking of talent—LA drafted Nikolai Prakhorkin and Alexander Dergachyov. Their contracts are set to expire next May. Will the Kings sign them next year?
HE: I think part of it is whether the management group stays on. Rob Blake is under some pressure even though this is only his second or third season. A lot of it depends on how well this team does. They have already fired the coach and I don’t know that they’ll go to the lengths to fire the General Manager just yet. But if they fire the GM, a lot of the scouts, I’m sure, would be dismissed as well. It’s difficult to predict who might be signed.
GK: Slava Voynov’s misdemeanor spousal abuse conviction was dismissed this summer after serving jail time, probation and community service. Do you think that the NHL will allow him back, and in particular, do you see him returning to LA?
HE: The NHL has been very involved in this from the beginning, and has taken it very seriously. I know that Voynov has explored the possibility of coming back and has spoken to the NHL commissioner. But I think the NHL is not inclined to let him back, at least not very quickly. Enough people have read about and seen the police reports, and know that Voynov went to jail, and are reluctant to have him back on the Kings. There are some fans who say that whatever he did, he paid his price and served his time. But I think there are more fans who think that what he did was so awful that he should not be allowed back.
You can find Helene Elliott on twitter.
A version of this article first appeared in Спорт-Экспресс under the title "‘Ковальчук разочарован, что ему не дают играть’. Взгляд из Америки на провал русской звезды.”