Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Inside look at Los Angeles Kings

The Los Angeles Kings are counting on Ilya Kovalchuk having a lot more to give at age 35.
Kovalchuk, who signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract July 1 after five seasons with SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League, has had a decorated NHL career. He scored 52 goals twice with the Atlanta Thrashers (2005-06, 2007-08), at least 30 nine times and 40 six times, including the 41 that tied Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla for the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2003-04.
But that was then. Kovalchuk, like the Kings, is getting older, and the window of opportunity remains open only for so long.
"When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three, four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level," Kovalchuk said. "I feel good. I'm a young 35, so we'll see."
Kovalchuk becomes the elder statesman on the Kings, who return six core players from the Stanley Cup wins in 2012 and '14: Dustin Brown (33), Jeff Carter (33), Jonathan Quick (32), Trevor Lewis (31), Alec Martinez (31) and Anze Kopitar, who will turn 31 Aug. 24. 
Coach John Stevens, however, believes time can be defied with the way players train and pay attention to nutrition, rest and recovery. And Los Angeles isn't concerned about Kovalchuk keeping up with the breakneck pace of the NHL.
"Obviously we believe that he can," Stevens said. "Our whole organization was pretty adamant about getting him in here. From a fitness and physical standpoint in terms of his ability, he takes pretty good care of himself and he really trains properly."
Kovalchuk doesn't see the window closing too quickly either, and one can make a case to support his argument. The Kings won 45 games and were the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. Kopitar won his second Selke Trophy and was a Hart Trophy finalist with 92 points (35 goals, 57 assists). Drew Doughty had 60 points (10 goals, 50 assists) and was runner-up for the Norris Trophy. Quick won 33 games and had a 2.40 goals-against average.
"L.A. has a great group of guys, great goaltending, great defense," Kovalchuk said. "They have one of the best centers (Kopitar) in the League. I never have a chance to play with those type of guys, so it's really exciting for me and it's great. That was the reason why I came, because they have guys who know how to win and they are really hungry to win."
There's also evidence the Kings' shelf life could be getting stale. They were swept by the eventual conference champions, the Vegas Golden Knights, in the first round after scoring three goals in four games, including a 2-1 double-overtime loss in Game 2. In addition to the Golden Knights (109 points), Los Angeles' chief competitors in the Pacific Division (Anaheim Ducks, 101; San Jose Sharks, 100) also had 100-point seasons. 
"We're going to have to continue to get better because everyone is getting better around us," Stevens said. "We like the state that we're in but we're also very honest with ourselves, all of us, that we need to continue to get better. 
"We think Kovalchuk really helps us there. He gives us a real threat on the wing that we didn't have before, a guy that's a proven goal-scorer."
Figure on Kovalchuk getting a chance to play left wing alongside Kopitar and Brown (61 points; 28 goals, 33 assists). A healthy Carter hopes to reinvigorate "That '70s Line" between Tanner Pearson (40 points; 15 goals, 25 assists) and Tyler Toffoli (47 points; 24 goals, 23 assists) after missing 55 games with a lacerated ankle tendon.
Forwards Alex Iafallo (24) and Adrian Kempe (21), and defensemen Derek Forbort (26) and Paul LaDue (25), will have to emerge in support of Kopitar and Doughty, who signed an eight-year, $88 million contract extension July 1. Los Angeles is also closely watching forward prospect Gabriel Vilardi, the No. 11 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. Vilardi will turn 19 on Aug. 16. 
The Kings may be working to get younger, but the old guard will determine how successful they will be. 
"We're certainly not getting any younger," Kopitar said. "I can't speak for myself, I feel very strongly about our core, even though we are getting older. I'm sure we can do it again and go deeper in the playoffs. We have the core that is still intact."

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