Los Angeles Kings: Kovalchuk is a high-risk, high reward move

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 25: Gold medal winner Ilya Kovalchuk #71 of Olympic Athlete from Russia celebrates after scoring a goal in overtime to defeat Germany 4-3 during the Men's Gold Medal Game on day sixteen of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Hockey Centre on February 25, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 25: Gold medal winner Ilya Kovalchuk #71 of Olympic Athlete from Russia celebrates after scoring a goal in overtime to defeat Germany 4-3 during the Men's Gold Medal Game on day sixteen of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Hockey Centre on February 25, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Kings were looking for a key piece to help improve their offense after it was nowhere to be found in the first round of the 2018 playoffs. With the successful landing of one of the biggest free agent prizes on the market in Ilya Kovalchuk, the Kings may or may not have found their answer.

The Los Angeles Kings knew that they needed to find offensive help this offseason. After scoring only three goals in the playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights, there was no question the Kings were going to go after the highly coveted Kovalchuk.

Now that they have the 35-year old under contract for the next three seasons, they intend to use his ability to score goals at a high rate to their advantage. Kovalchuk is just that, a pure scorer. He did it at the NHL level prior to his departure in 2013 (417 goals in 816 regular season games) and through his five seasons in the KHL (138 goals in 298 regular season games).

Los Angeles Kings demand offense from Kovalchuk 

The Kings are hoping that Kovalchuk will fit on their projected top line with franchise center Anze Kopitar and left winger Dustin Brown. He would replace youngster Alex Iafallo, who generated only 25 points in 75 games last season. Kovalchuk is seen as a huge upgrade.

Their hope is that the trio will develop the right chemistry and play well enough together that it will translate to constant pressure on opposing defense and goal scoring. At his best, Kovalchuk would solidify a top six that also includes Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson.

The Kings were middle of the road in goal scoring (16th) and power play (17th) when it came to the offense. If Kovalchuk is able to help elevate those numbers for the Kings, we should see a more potent offense for the Kings that compliments their exceptional defense.

Kovalchuk would be a perfect option for Kopitar to dish the puck to on the rush. He is also an underrated playmaker; He could do the same for Kopitar and Brown as opponents’ would have to respect his shot first, then his pass second. On the man advantage, I am thinking Kovalchuk would assume a similar role that Alex Ovechkin plays – hovering around on the lower left wing and waiting for the right moment to one-time a puck in.

Consistent scoring would allow Kings’ fans to finally get over the stigma that has accompanied the team in recent years – playing so well defensively, but a questionable offense that lets them down and remains elusive (well, at least the point of putting the puck in the net).

If Kovalchuk is able to generate 25-30 goals along with 30 assists, I would consider his signing a success for the Kings. He has high potential and worth and could be a valuable asset to turn the Kings back into a Stanley Cup Contender.

How Kovalchuk may not work for the Los Angeles Kings

The hope is that Kovalchuk will be a boost to a questionable Kings’ offense. But, hope is hope. Seeing the product materialize on the ice is different than theoretically what fits on paper. There are many risks with signing him and we must explore those in how they can hurt the Kings.

NHL Style of Play has Evolved

Kovalchuk’s absence from the NHL scene since 2013 does not help him at all. The style of play for NHL teams has significantly evolved over the last five years. It has become a league that is more focused on speed, skill, and quicker pace of play to generate scoring. Goodbye is the old, hard-hitting, heavy type of play – it is obsolete.

At 35, Kovalchuk certainly has the skill and hands to execute, but speed is a huge question mark. How fast is he? Does he have the speed to keep up with those players that are in their mid-20s like Nashville’s speedster Viktor Arvidsson and San Jose’s Evander Kane?

Can he prevent guys like those from generating on the rush and keeping himself in front of them? Most importantly, can he get passed these guys when he needs to make plays for himself and his teammates?

Does he need to be more strategic in how he handles the puck and moves with and without the puck if the speed is not there? Will he need to change the way in how he scores? This remains to be seen. Its possible that the new NHL style has passed him by, maybe it has not. Kovalchuk will need to adapt to this new style of play so he is not left in the dust.

Translating KHL success to the NHL

The bigger rink of the KHL (200 feet by 98 feet) gives players more room to work with and execute with the puck. The NHL rink is 85 feet wide (same 200 feet lengthwise), so it may pose a problem that Kovalchuk will have less room to operate.

The Los Angeles Kings and Kovalchuk may have to get creative on how he can be effective on a smaller rink. The good thing is that he has played on the smaller rink before, so he has tons of experience.

But there will definitely be some time needed to adapt to get used to being within close proximity with his opponents and teammates. The margin of error in dishing out a pass to a teammate or shooting the puck to the net is much smaller on a narrower rink. If Kovalchuk is unable to adapt smoothly, he may not be as successful as we think he can be.

Defensive Liability?

In his previous twelve seasons in the NHL, Kovalchuk tallied a whopping -111 in plus/minus. In fact, 10 of his 12 seasons he was a minus player on the ice. However, in his five-year KHL tenure, he garnered a +70. Interesting. Still, his defensive ability remains a mystery at the NHL level.

Does he miss his defensive assignments when on a smaller rink? Does the man he covers get lost in a shuffle? What can this -111 in the NHL be attributed to?

Luckily, he has an elite centerman in Kopitar to help cover him should mistakes be made. I am also assuming that he also will not be on the penalty kill as the Kings would not want to sacrifice his offense for defense. But still, his defense in on 5-on-5 situations should be closely monitored to see the net impact he will have on the Kings’ team.

That net impact being, is Kovalchuk contributing more to goal scoring and playmaking than contributing to defensive lapses when on the ice.

Salary Cap Implications

Committing a 35+ year old to a multi-year deal (three seasons) at $6.25 million per season is a huge risk. On the other hand, it is also a huge investment by the Kings. The concern is that Kovalchuk is eating a large portion of the available salary cap had to start off (about $9.5 million when it was announced the cap would be at $79.5 million for the 2018-19 season).

According to capfriendly.com, the Kings only have about $3.2 million left with a few depth forwards and third pair defensemen to sign. Not a whole lot of room to land another impact forward or defenseman.

Of course, if Kovalchuk does not produce at the rate the Kings expect, their payroll will situation will be in even more trouble. The Kings still have long-term commitments to Kopitar ($10 million), Dustin Brown ($5.875 million), and Jeff Carter ($5.275 million) over the next four years.

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This does not count number one defenseman Drew Doughty, who is expected to have even a bigger payday than the $7 million he is currently making.

A buyout would put the Los Angeles Kings in an even worse situation as his cap hit could be stretched across multiple years, hurting a rebuild down the line. But the present is the present, and that is what the Kings are focusing on now.

The Kings seem to be pushing their payroll to the limit and I don’t blame them. They want to extract as much out of the core as possible in a few runs for a championship. Consequently, the Kings could be stuck with a very old core in a couple of years.

Needless to say, the Kings may be putting all of their eggs in one basket by signing Kovalchuk to a long-term, high-value deal. Is he deserving of the deal? Is he the Kings’ missing piece offensively?

Next: Kings guide to the 2018 offseason

We’ll have to see how he performs on the NHL ice next season. The Los Angeles Kings are desperately hoping the signing pays off for the better.