The Los Angeles Kings are close to being officially and mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. They shift their focus for the next season(-s) as they want to give more space for youngsters. That might even include leaving a big free-agent signing from the last offseason in the press box. The Kings are contemplating whether to leave Ilya Kovalchuk as a potential healthy scratch for their next game against the Florida Panthers which is a Saturday matinee at Staples Center.
Ilya Kovalchuk: Healthy Scratch For the Los Angeles Kings?
Ilya Kovalchuk has had a season to forget. Last summer, he wanted to return to the NHL following five years spent in the KHL playing with St. Petersburg. The Russian winger signed a three-year deal worth $6.25 million per season. In his 59 games with the Kings so far, Kovalchuk has connected for just 30 points, including just 14 goals. That’s definitely less than the Kings hoped when they signed him almost a year ago.
The reality of the first season since his comeback to the NHL has struck Kovalchuk pretty hard. Despite the big expectations, he has not been able to impress. Now the Kings are contemplating making Kovalchuk a healthy scratch when they host the Florida Panthers on Saturday. The 35-year-old winger was just an extra man in practice on Friday.
“Whenever you’re losing, you just can’t stand pat. You want to find ways to get better,” head coach Willie Desjardins said. “We do want to get young guys in and playing, too. I think we’re always looking at different things we could do.” In his last 16 contests, Kovalchuk has recorded just four points and the Kings have just two wins in that time span.
With two years remaining on his contract, there is still hope both for the Kings and Ilya Kovalchuk, that he will bounce back. Nevertheless, it undoubtedly seems like a huge summer coming ahead for Kovalchuk.
Despite Lost Season, A Hopeful Finish For Los Angeles
After making the playoffs last season, the Kings hoped to repeat the fate in their following campaign as well.
But that hasn’t happened at all.
Los Angeles is currently dead-last in the Western Conference with 58 points, nine points away from 14th place in the West, presently occupied by their rivals the Anaheim Ducks. The Kings are tied for the second-worst record in the NHL alongside the Detroit Red Wings. They have one game in hand on Detroit.
The mindset for the Kings is rather clear. Give a bigger space to the young forwards. They have witnessed that with Carl Grundstrom making his NHL debut a week ago. In his very first game, he scored a goal in Arizona against the Arizona Coyotes. Then just 24 hours later, he scored another one in Anaheim versus the Ducks.
Grundstrom was the part of Jake Muzzin’s trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Kings made a full range of changes, trading away Tanner Pearson, Jake Muzzin, Oscar Fantenberg, Nate Thompson, and Carl Hagelin, whom they acquired in Pearson’s trade.
It’s not been only about Grundstrom, the Kings promoted other young players too. Austin Wagner, who was projected to start the year in Ontario in the AHL, has played in 50 games with the Kings in the NHL. The 21-year-old speedy forward has collected seven goals and 10 assists for 17 points.
“I remember watching clips this summer from me, my first year when I came down here when I was 18. I barely could shoot a puck, honestly, when you look at it then. And now my technique’s better, my release is better, I’m stronger, obviously,” said much improved Wagner following practice on Friday.
The Kings Finding Right Mix of Veterans and Youngsters
The Kings have kept their main veterans prior to the trade deadline, just like Ilya Kovalchuk. Players like Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter or Trevor Lewis provide a teaching lesson for the youngsters in their offensive lineup. Not only Grundstrom or Wagner, but skaters like Alex Iafallo, Brendan Leipsic or Jonny Brodzinski are also getting regular looks on the offense.
From their defensive perspective, Drew Doughty is playing with Derek Forbort on the top defensive pairing. Alec Martinez skates with Matt Roy on the second pairing and Dion Phaneuf plays with Paul Ladue on the third D-man pairing. In each of those cases, there is a perfect example of a veteran defenceman paired with a much younger partner. Other young defencemen like Kurtis MacDermid or Sean Walker have been getting a few looks.
Los Angeles will try to forge a bit of their identity moving forward towards the following season, both on and off the ice. Finishing as one of the worst teams in the NHL will certainly help them get a very high draft choice in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft. It’s way too early to say whether the Kings can make a comeback at being one of the 16 teams heading to the playoffs in April 2020, but they will make an effort for sure.