A prized free agent signing in the off-season, Ilya Kovalchuk has slipped down to the fourth line of the Los Angeles Kings, logging less than six-and-a-half minutes of ice time in Sunday's win over the Edmonton Oilers.
Kovalchuk, who started the season with 14 points in his first 14 games, is in the midst of a nine-game point drought after posting three points in Willie Desjardins' first game as interim head coach of the team. He told The Orange County Register on Monday that he's prioritizing team success above his own.
“I don’t know,” Kovalchuk said when asked why his ice time had decreased so significantly. “But the most important thing, we won last night. So that’s good, that’s positive. It doesn’t matter who plays how much minutes. It’s important to win, especially in our situation.”
Kovalchuk had a total of 10 shifts against the Oilers, none of which came in the third period - a first, according to the veteran winger.
“I don’t know how to be on the bench, because that’s first time in my career I sit there for third period,” he explained. “But I’m that kind of guy. You know, I don’t care. We were winning and that’s all that matters.”
Kovalchuk joined the Kings on a three-year, $18.75 million contract in July after spending the last five years in the KHL. He's had 15 shots during his nine-game skid and Desjardins said the 35-year-old has to capitalize on his opportunities to move up the lineup.
“He’s gotta score on his chances, he’s gotta create some offence,” Desjardins explained. “When I call his name, he’s excited to go. It hasn’t happened yet that I’ve called him and he’s kind of like where he doesn’t care.
“That’s a good sign. But for a guy who has played so well in the NHL, that’s a tough role for him.”
Despite his recent struggles, Kovalchuk is still tied for the Kings scoring lead with defenceman Drew Doughty. He said Monday it's the defensive side of his game that needs improvement.
“Yeah, probably,” Kovalchuk said. “At 35, I don’t think I can change much in my game. But for sure, to be minus-13, that’s not where I want to be. I would work hard to get those minuses back, for sure.”
Desjardins noted the winger has never been known for his play in his own end, but has masked that with offensive production.
“If you’re scoring, it’s never as much of an issue,” he said. “When he’s not scoring as much recently, then you have to contribute a little bit at the other end. And that’s something I don’t think he’s had to do a lot in his career.”
The Kings sit last in the NHL this season with 17 points through 23 games. They will visit the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday in the first game of a three-game road trip.