March 19, 2019

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Ilya Kovalchuk’s Return to the N.H.L. Isn’t Going as Planned

Ilya Kovalchuk’s Return to the N.H.L. Isn’t Going as Planned
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But if the Stanley Cup is the goal, the Kings, at least this season, may not be much help.

Plagued by a dearth of scoring, an ineffective power play, the absence of their trademark defensive doggedness and a seemingly unshakable malaise, Los Angeles (8-14-1) is last in the league standings.

The Kings have allowed their opponent to score first in 14 of 23 games, having come back to win just once. They are the lowest scoring team in the N.H.L. and have a league-worst minus-23 goal differential. Their power play improved from a league worst only after a 5-2 victory over Edmonton on Sunday. Their penalty kill has been porous, as well as too frequently deployed. Their expectations may have shifted from winning the Stanley Cup to pursuing the No. 1 overall pick, believed widely to be the American center Jack Hughes.

Los Angeles has won consecutive games just once this season, and did so with different coaches at the helm: After defeating Columbus on Nov. 3, John Stevens became the first coach to be fired this season; the Kings promoted Willie Desjardins to head coach, and he won his debut, against Anaheim on Nov. 6.

Kovalchuk, who nearly signed with the Kings in 2010, was a positive force initially. He leads the team in multipoint games (four) and points (14). But that says more for the Kings’ offensive futility than his prowess; Kovalchuk has not recorded a point in his last nine games.

Before Kovalchuk’s slump began, Datsyuk said: “Since he left, hockey has changed now, and he needed to adapt a little bit. Now it looks like he’s adapted. I think the further they go, the more he can help the team.”

Kovalchuk played down the adjustment to the evolving N.H.L. after five seasons in Russia.

“Hockey is the same game wherever you play,” he said. “The rink here is smaller, so everything comes faster. All the best players play here. It’s a good challenge for me personally because you have to get out of your comfort zone sometimes to be even better. Even if you’re 35, it does not matter. You can be better and learn something every day.”

Kovalchuk has moved around the lineup, playing left wing and right wing at even strength, as well as both point positions on the power play, where he heated up before the coaching change. Lately, though, he has been given fewer minutes and less responsibility. He has played considerably less with the top two forward lines and top power-play unit and has been used sparingly late in games. On Sunday, Kovalchuk logged a season-low 6 minutes 20 seconds in ice time and didn’t play a single shift in the third period.

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