Before the second round of the KHL post-season began, Ilya Kovalchuk had been benched for each of SKA St. Peterburg’s four first-round victories, stripped of the captaincy and sent home to train on his own. It seemed unlikely he’d get back in the lineup in the second round, but he did. However, it appears that stay in the lineup will be short-lived.
Kovalchuk, 32, was again benched by SKA following the first three games of the second-round series against Dynamo Moscow. In his first three outings, the veteran winger was held off the score sheet in each game and skated a total of more than 50 minutes over the three contests. While he did improve on his one-shot effort from Game 1 with four shots in the second and third games of the series, Kovalchuk was unable to pick up even an assist through the series’ first three games.
So, needing a win in a series SKA was trailing 2-1, coach Sergei Zubov did what he had in the first round: he sat Kovalchuk down. St. Petersburg responded with a 4-0 win to even the series at two games apiece.
It’s difficult to see any way Zubov and his coaching staff go back to Kovalchuk at any point in the series, especially given St. Petersburg won yet again with Kovalchuk out of the lineup. Of their six wins this post-season, five have come with Kovalchuk watching from the sidelines. When asked about his choice to keep Kovalchuk out, Zubov told media post-game that he “simply chose the optimal line-up” for Game 4.
If Kovalchuk is again out of the lineup Tuesday — and, at this point, that seems like a likelihood — it would seem as though he’s lost any inkling of trust the coaching staff may have had left in him. It’s hard to say what that will mean for Kovalchuk going forward, however. When it seemed as though he would be scratched for the remainder of the post-season, there seemed to be the possibility Kovalchuk would terminate his deal with SKA following this season, but that seemed less certain when he was put back into the lineup for Game 1 of the series against Dynamo. Benched again, however, it seems that option is almost certainly on the table again.
Kovalchuk’s options for a return to the NHL are few, and he would need to either have all 30 teams sign off on his return, to sit out one season before returning with the New Jersey Devils or wait until April 2018. At this point, though, it’s worth wondering if any NHL team would see anything left in the tank for Kovalchuk. He’s been a top-15 scorer in the KHL consistently, but never the league’s best since returning in 2013. And that SKA is winning without Kovalchuk might be a sign he’s not the same player he once was. If that’s the case, an NHL return might be out of the question for reasons other than the hoops he needs to jump through.