Well, that didn’t take long.
Less than one and a half seasons into a three-year pact with the Kings, during which he skated in 81 games or one game shy of the equivalent of one full campaign, the Ilya Kovalchuk experiment has officially gone bust in Los Angeles. On Monday, the veteran winger was placed on waivers for the purpose of contract termination. Come Tuesday, that termination was completed.
With that, a saga that had the furthest thing from a storybook ending is over. Not once across the past month-plus had Kovalchuk stepped foot on the ice for the Kings, instead sitting out and awaiting a bonus payment until the two sides could part ways. And the reminder of the now so obviously ill-advised signing won’t be going away anytime soon for Los Angeles. There’s still the whole salary cap issue with which the Kings will have to contend. As he was inked after his 35th birthday, Kovalchuk’s contract is one of those sticky 35-plus deals. That means despite the fact he was a willing participant in the contract termination, and despite the fact he could potentially be signed by and skating with another NHL team in the not-too-distant future, Los Angeles will remain on the hook for the entirety of Kovalchuk's $6.25-million cap hit. That’s for the remainder of this season and all of next.
But maybe, in a roundabout way, this isn’t the worst thing for the Kings.
The cap hit associated with the termination, of course, isn’t easy to stomach. That’s particularly true when it adds to the nearly $4.8 million in dead money that was already set to impact Los Angeles’ bottom line next season as the result of the Dion Phaneuf buyout and Mike Richards’ contract termination. However, that the Kings were willing to cut their losses and take their lumps instead of continuing on with a Kovalchuk-shaped roadblock in the lineup might be a sign Los Angeles is finally doing what’s best for the future of the franchise: accepting that there is no quick fix.
When Kovalchuk was signed, the thought process was that he would be a cure for what ailed the attack, a power play weapon who could provide what was needed for renewed success in Tinseltown. That was decidedly not the case. While he did produce – on the whole, his 19 goals and 43 points were decent totals – Kovalchuk was the proverbial square peg trying to fit into the round hole. The first signs of that were present when he was demoted and dropped down the lineup last season. His declining average ice time this season was another indication that it simply wasn’t a fit for either side. At a certain point, Kings GM Rob Blake and the rest of Los Angeles’ staff had to accept the reality of the situation. The termination represents that. And that might be the silver lining here for the Kings.
As with the Kovalchuk signing in July 2018, the acquisition of the since-bought out Phaneuf only months earlier was seemingly an attempt by Los Angeles to cling to relevance and fringe-contender status. That it went sideways on the Kings was a surprise to almost no one. Phaneuf was on the decline at the time he was acquired and that experiment, much like the one with Kovalchuk, went awry. But following the Phaneuf buyout and in the Kings’ new post-Kovalchuk state, it seems far less likely that Los Angeles is going to be all that willing to take wild swings at big-money or big-name talent in an attempt to spark a franchise that needs more than one noteworthy addition to right the ship.
Truth be told, we may have seen the first signs of the Kings front office’s shift in mentality take root in the back half of the 2018-19 campaign and into the off-season. It was last January and February that the Kings parted ways with Jake Muzzin, Nate Thompson and Carl Hagelin, receiving nothing but picks and prospects in return, and Los Angeles was noticeably quiet throughout the off-season. The Kings’ lone summer free agent signing was the late addition of defenseman Ben Hutton. Splashy, it was not.
Los Angeles’ accepting of their fate as a league bottom feeder and a team that cannot seek the Kovalchuk-esque quick fixes is a necessary evil, too. In The Hockey News’ 2019 Future Watch issue, the Kings had the 26th-ranked prospect group in the NHL, according to a panel of scouts. Four picks within the first two rounds of the 2019 draft, which allowed Los Angeles to select Alex Turcotte, Tobias Bjornfot, Arthur Kaliyev and Samuel Fagemo, has fortified that prospect base, however. And with the way things have gone this season, it appears likely the Kings will have another top-five selection.
But if Blake and Co. wish to go all-in ahead of the upcoming draft, there exists opportunity for that, as well. Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford will all become trade fodder as the deadline approaches, as will Hutton and fellow defensemen Alec Martinez and Derek Forbort. If Blake so chooses, all six can be dangled, if not outright moved, for additional picks and prospects that can further Los Angeles’ pursuit of the kind of roster reset that is undoubtedly necessary for the Kings to take meaningful steps forward.
Regardless of how Blake proceeds with those who could follow Kovalchuk out the door, though, it seems certain that the days of the Kings seeking the quick fix to patch the myriad holes in their lineup are over. And if that’s the only good that comes out of the entire Kovalchuk ordeal, there’s nothing wrong with that.
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