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Kovalchuk signed with Kings to have good chance at Stanley Cup

Forward, returning to NHL after five seasons, joins 'guys who know how to win'

by Dan Greenspan / Correspondent

LOS ANGELES -- Ilya Kovalchuk said the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup is the main reason he signed with the Los Angeles Kings after spending the past five seasons for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League.

"The Kings are definitely one of the teams (who can win it)," Kovalchuk said Saturday.

Kovalchuk signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract with Los Angeles on July 1 in part to play with center Anze Kopitar, defenseman Drew Doughty and goalie Jonathan Quick, the core of the Kings' championship teams in 2012 and 2014. He reportedly met with the Kings, Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights; all four made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, with Vegas reaching the Stanley Cup Final after sweeping Los Angeles in the Western Conference First Round.

"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. "L.A. has a great group of guys, great goaltending, great defense. They have one of the best centers 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."

The 35-year-old forward last played in the NHL in the 2012-13 season, when he had 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 37 games with the New Jersey Devils.

Video: Kovalchuk agrees to three-year contract with Kings

Kovalchuk delayed his return to the NHL by one season to be eligible to participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, where he had seven points (five goals, two assists) to help the Olympic Athletes from Russia win the gold medal. Kovalchuk finished tied for second in goals and fourth in points.

Kovalchuk led the KHL with 63 points (31 goals, 32 assists) in 53 games. Based on his production there and at the Olympics, he said he is confident his skills will translate in the NHL, which has become increasingly focused on speed and skill. Kings coach John Stevens said he expects to use Kovalchuk in a top-six role, which could ease his transition back to the NHL.

"The last few years I was still in the same caliber like I was, so I feel comfortable," said Kovalchuk, who has 816 points (417 goals, 399 assists) in 816 NHL games over 11 seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers and Devils. "Especially when you play with the guys like Kopitar, Doughty, [forward Jeff] Carter, [forward Dustin] Brown, those guys, they make it even easier to get the points and the goals. They know how to win, so I will try my best to help them do the same."

But Kovalchuk, who tied Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla for the NHL goals lead in 2003-04 with 41, said he understands there is no guarantee that he will be playing on the top two lines with Kopitar, Brown or Carter.

"For me, I need to be in the best shape possible to be ready because it will be the coach's decision who I play with," Kovalchuk said.

Kovalchuk said he has exchanged text messages with Kopitar and other Los Angeles players, and spoken to several Russian NHL players about the state of the League, including Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who won the Cup in 2016 and '17.

Kovalchuk said he ramped up his knowledge of the NHL after the Olympics with an eye toward his return, watching the playoffs intently. He said he was delighted and amused by countryman Alex Ovechkin's antics with Cup after the forward helped the Washington Capitals win it last month.

"He's still celebrating I think," Kovalchuk said. "It's great to see new Russian guys win the Cup because for a few years only [Malkin] was winning."

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