Ilya Kovalchuk's tumultuous tenure in Los Angeles has come to an end this week and, although his time with the Kings was relatively short, it was quite the strange road. The abridged version is this: The Kings have officially terminated the contract Kovalchuk signed with the team in 2018, and he's now an unrestricted free agent with the ability to sign a new deal wherever he chooses, assuming there are suitors.
But those of you who haven't been paying close attention to this saga as it has played out over the past year and a half may be confused as to how we arrived at this point, so let's attempt to break down the journey.
How did we get here?
The Kings placed Kovalchuk on unconditional waivers Monday, Dec. 16 with the intention of terminating his contract. He cleared waivers on Tuesday and is free to sign anywhere he likes, whether that be in the NHL, KHL or elsewhere.
The winger's departure from the Kings comes just a year-and-a-half into the three-year, $18.75 contract he signed with team last summer. At the time, that was a big deal as he was set to make a much-anticipated return to the NHL following a multi-year stint in the KHL. Los Angeles viewed the Russian winger as a missing piece that would give their contending team some extra offensive firepower, but things haven't exactly gone to plan.
Kovalchuk's departure may come just halfway through his contract, but it doesn't exactly feel premature. The Kings essentially gave up on him this season, scratching him in 18 consecutive games dating back to November 9th, when they publicly announced they were.
The 36-year-old remained with the club and participated in team activities long enough to collect a scheduled bonus worth $2.65 million on Sunday -- bringing his total payout with the Kings to over $14 million. After collecting the bonus, Kovalchuk left the team.
That allowed the Kings the option to terminate his contract, which frees up a roster spot and voids the remaining money on Kovalchuk's deal, meaning they will save some cash. Unfortunately for the team, it will not take Kovalchuk's $6.25 million cap hit off their books this season or next.
In the end, Kovalchuk played just 81 games with Los Angeles, scoring 19 goals and recording 24 assists.
Where did things go wrong?
When Kovalchuk signed his deal with Los Angeles in the summer of 2018, the Kings were coming off a season in which they qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card in the Western Conference before being swept out of the first round by the Vegas Golden Knights. The hope was that Kovalchuk, who was an elite scoring talent in his prime, would help boost the Kings' tepid offense and propel them to more success in the years to come.
But many believed the Kings hadn't done enough to combat an aging roster and surmised that adding a 35-year-old Kovalchuk to that group wouldn't bring the desired results. That proved to be true, as the the Kings regressed hard and the offense still looked thoroughly unimpressive even with Kovalchuk in the lineup.
Kovalchuk quickly fell out of favor with Kings coach Willie Desjardins, who moved the winger out of the top six and gave him limited power play time. The relationship deteriorated to the point where Kovalchuk didn't even travel with the team during a road trip last March.
That being said, Kovalchuk still finished third among L.A. forwards with 34 points (16 goals, 18 assists) in 64 games last season -- though that says more about the Kings' offense than it does Kovalchuk.
Desjardins was let go over the summer and Todd McLellan replaced him as the new Kings' coach. With that move came hope Kovalchuk would find more consistency and opportunity. But that hope evaporated rather quickly, as Kovalchuk lasted just 17 games before being shut down. He recorded three goals and six assists during that span (one goal and two assists in his final 13) and was a liability for Los Angeles defensively. The winger held a team-worst goal-share of 26.32 percent at the time of his benching.
With Kovalchuk now an unrestricted free agent, he'll have an opportunity to put the Kings debacle behind him and get a fresh start elsewhere. The question is: Will that fresh start come with another NHL club?
Given Kovalchuk's rocky tenure with the Kings and his messy divorce with the Devils years ago -- the winger abandoned the club in the third year of a 15-year contract -- there may be serious hesitations when it comes to another NHL team making a commitment to the veteran. Clubs may not want to open themselves up to that kind of drama and disfunction, especially when Kovalchuk hasn't consistently proven he can be a valuable top-six piece in today's NHL, fair shot or not.
However, plenty of hopeful contenders could use scoring help and/or a power play specialist, and Kovalchuk's next NHL contract would be significantly lower risk than his previous one, both in terms of money and years. Some team may be willing to take the gamble on him after weighing the risks and rewards. If multiple offers find their way to his table, it'll be interesting to see what his priorities are: Is he looking for money? The best possible team to compete for a Stanley Cup? A team that can promise him a fair shake and consistent opportunity?
If money is the case, it's possible that Kovalchuk may find his most lucrative option outside of the NHL. There's always the possibility that he could return to the KHL in his native Russia, where he has reportedly already received a contract offer from Omsk Avangard. That could be an appealing destination if the NHL interest in limited.
If this does turn out to be the end of Kovalchuk's days in the NHL, it'd be a very unceremonious and ugly -- yet somehow somewhat fitting -- conclusion to a very strange career.