Heading on the road; Kovalchuk’s skill; Desjardins quotes; three stars drought

INSIDERS. A very happy Monday afternoon to you from the bus en route to the team hotel in St. Paul. The LA Kings practiced at Toyota Sports Center at 9:30 a.m. without revealing any wholesale changes to the lineup. That’s a generic way of saying that I forgot a bag at home, returned to retrieve it after dropping my daughter off at school, and did not catch early-skate line rushes. Correspondence at the rink indicated no changes to the forward groups, though Nate Thompson was granted an excused absence and was not with the team this morning. He’ll reconvene with everyone in Minnesota.


–The Kings are facing some desperate teams on this trip.

“I think we’re the most desperate team,” Ilya Kovalchuk said.

And the Kings are desperate in some senses of the word, but at 18-25-3 and having to leapfrog seven teams to make up an eight-point standings gap in advance of trades that will re-create the roster through the absence of several important players, we’re not really talking this “playoffs” idea up around these parts.

But Minnesota, Dallas and Colorado all have playoffs on their mind, which speaks to the parity in the league and perhaps a diluted Western Conference compared to the competitive zeniths of the past two decades in which the Red Wings, Avalanche, Stars, Blackhawks and Kings have all ruled the roost.

“We’re obviously not where we want to be, and I think that road trip can change things because everybody falls in that lower part of the standings,” Kovalchuk said. “We just need to play the way we played against Pittsburgh. … Special teams have got to be much better, our power play has to be better.”

As of Monday morning, the Wild, Stars and Avs are all in precarious playoff positions. Minnesota has pulled out of a slump with five wins in the last eight games against some tough competition, Dallas has won exactly half of its games since December 1, while Colorado is 1-7-2 in its last 10. The Stars still occupy the final Central Division spot, while the Avs and Wild own the two Wild Card positions, a comfortable landing position for three teams that at a combined 65-55-15 have lost more games than they’ve won this season.

“They’re tough teams in their buildings,” Willie Desjardins said. “It’s like every one of those teams are good teams and capable of big games. It is a tough schedule. We’ve got to be on top of our games. There’ll be nothing easy, so if we expect to get something easy, we’ll know it won’t be easy. We’ve got to play with our structure, but we’ve shown that if we’re ready we can play with teams.”

Desjardins then addressed the structure that he’d like to see the team play with. While Los Angeles was ::loosens collar:: out-shot 21-5 in the third period of Saturday’s 5-2 win over Pittsburgh, there were some pronounced structural aspects to work on as well as several that encouraged him amidst the Penguins’ inevitable push.

“We gave them some power plays that helped them. That got them going,” Desjardins said. “We have to be better that way. I watched them against Anaheim, and Anaheim was up 3-0, and they had a three-minute shift in Anaheim’s zone at the end of the first period, so they’re capable of doing that to you. Just because they have one great shift, you can’t let it throw you off what you’re doing. So there were parts of it that I liked, but the key for us was to get it in their zone and forecheck their D, and when we did that, Kempe’s line had a big shift with about four minutes left when they got it up and they got on their D, so there are things that we have to keep doing that we can be a little bit better at.”

–Oh, hello: that’s an attractive Ilya Kovalchuk no-look touch pass to set up Brendan Leipsic for a tap-in.

Beautiful hockey! It’s also a bang-bang play in which Jake Muzzin makes a strong play to keep the puck in the zone before Kovalchuk’s purposeful and handsy redirect towards Leipsic. “I saw him there, so I was trying to tip the puck off the goalie directly to him,” Kovalchuk said. “It worked out pretty well.”

I’ll say! It was scored while the Dumoulin-Letang pairing and Rust-Malkin-Guentzel combination was looking to turn the play around in the other direction.

Kovalchuk hasn’t scored since his game-winner at San Jose shortly before the Christmas break, but with three assists in his last four games has demonstrated the raised skill level so important to Los Angeles and acquitted himself quite well in the Pittsburgh game. While that pure, unadulterated skill is something Kovalchuk and few others can provide, Desjardins also clarified other aspects of the winger’s game that had previously put a cap on his ice time. (Kovalchuk’s minutes have risen since he returned from injured reserve, especially over the last five games.)

“He gives you things that you just don’t expect are going to come, and that’s a gift he has. He sees the ice well, he makes plays like that, so that part’s good and that’s stuff that he can bring. We talk about it – that’s what makes him great is his creativity, and sometimes he just has to find it inside the structure a little bit. Like, offensively he can just be creative, but defensively, sometimes you’ve got to try to find ways to bring that creativity and keep it in the structure.”

Kovalchuk was born with that level of skill, but for many others, it’s an aspect that may have to be unearthed by development coaches, by skating coaches, shooting tutors, et cetera, et cetera. Desjardins has coached up-tempo teams and developed players in both the WHL and AHL and also opened the Willie Desjardins South Alberta Hockey Academy near Medicine Hat, Alta. late last summer as part of his endeavor to teach and develop younger hockey players.

“I don’t think you become great at skill unless you’re excited about doing skill. Like, [Kovalchuk] just is excited, and that helps you when you bring that excitement to your skill level, and it makes him do things quick. Look, he can play quick on it because he’s excited about it,” he said. “I think the big thing with skill development is repetition, and you’ve got to do it over a number of times, and then the other thing is you can be good at doing it slow, and that doesn’t help you, so first you start slow, but then eventually you have to be able to do it at high-speeds.”

–It’s really not appropriate of anything, nor is it particularly important, but here’s an interesting factoid for you: Los Angeles hasn’t had a player with one of the weekly or monthly three-stars since Peter Budaj’s Third Star accolade from the week ending February 5, 2017.

With this week’s stars being awarded to Mark Giordano, Jordan Binnington and Jake Guentzel, there are now eight teams whose players have combined to receive at least 10 stars over that span: Tampa Bay (16), Winnipeg (15), Boston (12), Pittsburgh (11), Colorado (11), Chicago (10), Calgary (10) and Vegas (10). Los Angeles, the New York Rangers and Detroit are the only teams to have gone star-free amidst the Lightning and Jets’ reign of terror.

Related! Team rankings, goals per 60 minutes in all situations since February 6, 2017: Tampa Bay (1), Winnipeg (2), Pittsburgh (3), Boston (6), Vegas (7), Calgary (11), Colorado (14), Chicago (16), New York Rangers (23), Los Angeles (27), Detroit (28). It would be nice to see Drew Doughty earn a bunch of stars for racking up disrupted passes against odd-man rushes, but points are points are points.

–The Kings could see a familiar face in Dallas on Thursday night. NO, NOT YOU, ANDREW COGLIANO.

Mersch, who signed a two-year, two-way contract with Dallas in the off-season, has nine goals and 20 points in 29 games with AHL-Texas.

“I’ve been with the organization for four years,” he said after his final game with the Reign, a 1-0 loss to Texas that eliminated Ontario from the Calder Cup Playoffs last spring. “At this point, you see a lot of guys come and go up and switch teams, and we had a lot of new faces this year,” Mersch said. “It was really fun for me to be able to get close with these guys and to have new relationships, and ones that will be there for the rest of my life and the rest of my career.”

Selected in the fourth round in 2011, Mersch got into 17 games with Los Angeles in 2015-16, scoring one goal and adding two assists. 248 of Mersch’s 277 career AHL games have come with Ontario and Manchester, with whom he won the 2015 Calder Cup.

Willie Desjardins, on elements of the Pittsburgh game that he’d like to replicate:
Well, I thought we’ve had some good starts. It’s carried into quite a few games, and that comes out of your leadership. Those guys are ready at the start of the game. Again, I thought the first two periods, I thought we were pretty resilient, too. One thing, when we’ve gotten scored on, maybe sometimes it’s gotten us down. It didn’t bother us. The guys stayed with it, and we came back.

Desjardins, on any lasting memories from coaching in the Dallas organization:
It was a good place to be. There are some good people in that organization. I’ve got lots of respect for the players that were there when I was around. I think they’re a team, too, that wants to get on track. They’re close. They’re good in some games, and they haven’t been good in others, so they want to get on track. Overall, I’ve just got a lot of respect for guys there.

Desjardins, on the challenges presented by the “grind” and “dog days” in January:
It’s probably hard, but you jut can’t let that be there, because there’s just no room for it. You’ve got to find a way to be good every night. We talked about that. We had to find a way – I brought it up again. The Ottawa game, you’ve got to give Ottawa credit, too. Like they played well, but we still have to find a way to get that game. It doesn’t matter if it’s in January or when it is. That’s our job, that’s what we’re supposed to do. Saying that, yeah, there is a challenge. It is a lot of hockey for the guys, but that’s what separates them from other players, that they have the ability to do that.

Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI

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