NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk's wild and crazy off-season officially ended Friday morning when he arrived at Prudential Center for team physicals and the start of training camp. After nearly two months of contract negotiations and a dispute over whether his contract circumvented the salary cap, Kovalchuk was able to get down to the business of being a New Jersey Devil.
Never before has a person been this happy to wake up before sunrise to go through a battery of medical tests. At long last, Kovalchuk can just focus on playing hockey.
"It is actually really good," said Kovalchuk, who was looking forward to taking part in his treadmill test. "I'm glad my family is all set and we know where we're going to be for the next 15 years and that's the most important thing. With three kids, that's important to be sure of where we are."
Kovalchuk's offseason, of course, included the signing of a 17-year deal rejected by the NHL and subsequently ruled circumvention by an independent arbitrator. The winger then signed a 15-year contract that was approved when the League and the Players' Association negotiated amendments to the Collective Bargaining Agreement regarding the length of player contracts and salary amounts in later years.
Kovalchuk discussed the contract dispute resolution between the NHL and Devils that resulted in a $3 million fine and the team forfeiting future first- and third-round draft picks.
"It's always bad when you're team is penalized but that's a relationship between the owner and the GM and the League," Kovalchuk said. "It's bad, but what are you going to do? It's reality."
A harsh reality of the Kovalchuk signing is the Devils are now about $4 million over the salary cap thanks partly to the contract, which means one or two players will have to be removed from the roster before the start of the season. While GM Lou Lamoriello hasn't mentioned any names, there has been plenty of speculation about who the Devils could trade in order to comply with the salary cap.
Kovalchuk knows his contract is why the Devils are in this situation, but he said he can't let that become a distraction as he prepares for the upcoming season.
"My job is to play and Lou's job is to find a way to work it out," said Kovalchuk, who for now is living with agent Jay Grossman while his family stays in Florida. "My job now is to focus on the game and get ready for the season."
Right wing Brian Rolston has two years remaining on his four-year, $20 million deal. If the Devils could find a taker for the $5 million cap hit of Rolston, who has scored just 35 goals the past two seasons. He also has a no-trade clause, and the Devils haven't asked him to waive it.
Center Travis Zajac, whose cap hit is approximately $4 million, has also had his name tossed around as a potential trade candidate. But losing Zajac would leave the Devils with Jason Arnott as the only proven scoring center on the roster.
Even left wing Patrik Elias, the Devils' all-time leading scorer, could be a trade candidate. He had 19 goals and 29 assists in 58 games last season and carries a hefty $6 million cap hit. And with Zach Parise and Kovalchuk also on the roster, the Devils have a glut of players who are natural left wings.
Looking at the blue line, newly signed Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder are the Devils' highest-paid defensemen. Since they are clearly staying put, that leaves Colin White and Bryce Salvador as the only defensemen who could ease the team's cap burden. Both carry about $3 million cap hits, but trading or stashing just one of them in the minors wouldn't be enough to get under the cap.
With the start of the season just two weeks away, Zach Parise admitted there's a weird feeling around the unsettled team right now.
"I can only speak from a personal standpoint, but it is a little different," he said. "In the back of your mind you're wondering who's not going to be there when you start. It's kind of weird. I've never been in that type of situation when a good friend and a good teammate is going to be gone and you don't know who."
Kovalchuk has no control over that decision, but he believes the Devils will be better off for having gone through so much turmoil during the offseason.
"The process is behind us and now we don't have to think about the League and I focus on playing hockey," Kovalchuk said.
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