"We felt strongly from Day 1 what we could and couldn't do," said Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello. "We had to be patient while Ilya considered all his options. This was an opportunity to get a player of the highest calibre, the kind of player we are not in position to draft."
New Jersey signed the 27-year-old Russian firebrand to a 17-year contract, the longest in league history, but of course the Devils are in the details. After Chicago inked Marian Hossa and Vancouver locked up Roberto Luongo to 12-year deals, the Devils boldly pushed salary cap intervention to the next level. Kovalchuk will be 44 when this deal is over, but he is scheduled to make just $550,000 in each of his final five seasons. In essence, this is a 10-year contract that will pay the two-time 50-goal scorer $95 million. However, thanks to the Beautiful Mind tactics of Lamoriello, team capologist Steve Pelligrini (a former league exec) and Kovalchuk agent Jay Grossman, the salary cap hit is just $6 million a year.
"We have a player that will complement the players we have, and complement him," said Lamoriello. "The logo in front will always be more important than the name in back. As of today, the contract is no longer a discussion in our mind. There is nothing more important than the team. Ilya and I had a conversation about this, and he never wavered. He is on board with what we do."
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In the end, all the New Jersey Devils organization and its fans know is that they have wrapped up one of the game's most dynamic talents for the entire prime of his career. In 27 regular season games with the Devils, Kovalchuk had 27 points. He was the very least of their problems in their first round ouster in five games at the hands of eventual East champions Philadelphia, scoring two goals and four assists.
As painful as the playoff loss was, Lamoriello was blunt in acknowledging that he had no chance of making Kovalchuk a Devil for life if not for the 32-game, two-way tryout.
"No question in my mind this would not have happened today," said Lamoriello. "We knew the type of player he was in terms of skill. The question was, would he fit into our philosophy? It is fairly strict, the way we do things. To my mind, his answers came loud and clear from Day 1. He saw it in the respect he showed our players. He fit right in, and the players embraced him."
Or, as Brodeur put it, "We got Kovy in the door, and he liked it."
The franchise is bursting with optimism over the thought of Kovalchuk having a full training camp and season schooled in the Devils' Way.
"It's not going to be a problem fitting him in," said new Devils coach John MacLean, who wore the biggest grin on the press conference dais. "This is an exceptional player who wants to win a Stanley Cup, like some of his teammates. He has the ability to help us win another one."
Kovalchuk proved he is the stuff Devils are made of early in his opening statements to the media.
"One thing I learned: this team is not about one guy," said Kovalchuk. "There is unfinished business. That's why I wanted to come back."
As everyone outside of New Jersey tsk-tsked "Yeah, but ..." Devils management -- okay, that's really just Lamoriello -- is not about to let anyone see him sweat. New Jersey will have to shed approximately $4 million in salary by the middle of training camp in September. The team may even have to give up an asset as a sweetener to do so, but no doubt Lamoriello has had a plan since acquiring Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers on Feb. 4.
Hard to fathom that anyone believes this is an issue, but the retention of Kovalchuk's services is also not going to cost the franchise its home-grown wonder boy, Zach Parise. The American sniper said there have been no discussions between his agent and Lamoriello, and did not express the slightest concern. If anything, the signing of another top-10 scorer cements his focus on staying in the Devils family.
"Kovy has that rare one-on-one skill that few players in the game have," said Parise. "You saw that in his games with us last season. The other team is aware of him every step he takes. I look forward to playing with Kovy for a long time."
Then there is the business aspect of having Kovalchuk in his prime at the Prudential Center. Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek did not pretend that the contract was impacted on Kovalchuk's effect on the box office.
"In this area, you need to win," said Vanderbeek. "There are too many sporting and entertainment options. Yes, keeping Ilya has a positive effect on our business, but winning and business go hand-in-hand. In the tri-state area, winning correlates to ticket sales."
At every level of the business, the Devils had a good day. On another hot mid-July afternoon in New Jersey, the franchise drew a large gathering of media to their celebration at The Rock. Several teammates made the effort to show up for Kovalchuk's coronation. Even a few dozen Devils fans gathered outside the arena to welcome the signed star and his family.
In the end, leave it to the forever face of the franchise, Martin Brodeur, to sum up the day's events.
"Having a player like Kovy in our building every night makes us exciting, makes us a team people want to see," said the goaltender with the three Stanley Cup rings and a few pages in the NHL record book. "More importantly, he makes us a team that will contend. Regardless of whether we crap it up every once in a while, we're going to be good."