NEWARK, N.J. -- Ilya Kovalchuk turned out to be everything you would expect of a world-class athlete in the second season of the 15-year, $100 million contract he signed in September 2010.
But there's no denying the fact a lower-body injury that Kovalchuk aggravated at some point in his team's opening-round playoff win against the Florida Panthers took its toll in the end.
"I don't have the exact answer [to how limited Kovalchuk was], but I can tell you he was quite a bit under 100 percent," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said Wednesday. "I could tell you that, but I can't give you [an exact percentage]. A back injury is not like a broken bone where you have a handle on it … he wasn't close to 100 percent."
Kovalchuk, DeBoer and the rest of the team discussed the season that was Wednesday at Prudential Center during the team's breakup day. It will be a long two months of reflection on what could have been.
"In my NHL career, it was the most successful season for me and I'll take a lot of good things from the year and move on. You got to lose before you win something big. Hopefully this will help and we'll be even stronger next year."
-- Ilya Kovalchuk
Still, it was a season Kovalchuk admitted he never will forget.
"In my NHL career, it was the most successful season for me and I'll take a lot of good things from the year and move on," he said. "You got to lose before you win something big. Hopefully this will help and we'll be even stronger next year."
In three rounds leading up the Final against the Kings, Kovalchuk had seven goals and 18 points in 17 games.
In six games against Los Angeles, a seemingly ailing Kovalchuk could only manage one empty-net goal in the final minute of the Devils' 3-1 win in Game 4. He also finished with a minus-3 rating in the Final while generating just 12 shots -- an average of two per game. He averaged 4.0 shots in 77 regular-season games, and 3.6 shots per game in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
He refused to talk about his injury or use it as an excuse for his mediocre Final performance. DeBoer said Kovalchuk's exit medicals will be done Wednesday and Thursday, and Kovalchuk said he's hoping that no serious procedure is recommended. However, he wouldn't go into detail about what was bothering him.
"It doesn't make any sense to talk about it now, it's all over and it's a bad excuse," Kovalchuk said. "I don't think one guy on the ice was 100-percent healthy. You have to take care of yourself the next couple of months and be ready for next year."
Despite his struggles Kovalchuk still finished second in playoff scoring with 19 points. He missed a Game 2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a lower-body injury. He also missed five regular-season games (Nov. 5-15) with a lower-body issue.
"You play 100 games, so you can't play with no injuries," Kovalchuk said. "It was a long season and great experience for me. I don't really want to talk about any injuries now; what happened is in the past. [Los Angeles] deserved to win. They were the better team this year and congrats to them."
The Devils were 3-8 this postseason when Kovalchuk didn't notch a point and 11-2 when he did. Clearly, they relied on his offense and his locomotive mentality through the neutral zone.
"I thought he showed a lot of guts and a lot of character," DeBoer said. "He didn't want to come out and he had a significant enough injury that he could have easily come out. But he didn't want to go down that road and that's a testament to his character."
"I thought he showed a lot of guts and a lot of character. He didn't want to come out and he had a significant enough injury that he could have easily come out. But he didn't want to go down that road and that's a testament to his character." -- Peter DeBoer
Kovalchuk had team-highs of 37 goals, 83 points and 10 power-play goals during the regular season, while also playing a big part in the defensive end. Under DeBoer, Kovalchuk also saw significant time on the penalty kill.
"He's the guy everyone looked to at times and it's tough because there's so much pressure on him to perform, and if the team isn't playing well people look to him and those guys for answers," rookie center Adam Henrique told NHL.com. "But the way he handled himself around the rink and away, he's one of our leaders and we're very lucky to have him here as a teammate."
It was a special season for Kovalchuk, who never had advanced beyond the first round before this spring. After 10 years in the NHL, he finally was able to play in June.
"It's real disappointing when you get that close and can feel it, but didn't get it," Kovalchuk said. "It'll take a couple of weeks, but until next year, I'm pretty sure we're all going to think about [the loss]. But now you can't do anything about it. We have to make sure we're better next year."
He came up two wins short, but it seems like he's now more determined than ever to return and help seal the deal.
"All year long, we showed a lot of character and we never gave up," Kovalchuk said. "In the end, it wasn't enough. But we have a lot of positives to focus on as we look to next year. We will be better."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale