One summer after losing Zach Parise as a free agent to the Minnesota Wild, the Devils have lost their best player again. The Devils on Thursday announced Kovalchuk's retirement from the NHL with 12 years and $77 million remaining on his contract.
"Right now we just have to take a step back to go forward," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "We'll just have to re-evaluate what our options are and do the best we can, but we'll be ready to play when September comes."
Kovalchuk, 30, has 417 goals and 816 points in 816 regular-season NHL games. It could be nearly impossible to replace the offense he creates and the minutes he logs. He scored at least 30 goals in each of the past nine 82-game NHL seasons, including 37 goals and 83 points in 2011-12, when he was voted a First-Team All-Star.
Last season, Kovalchuk was a workhorse for the Devils, averaging almost 25 minutes per game, by far the most among NHL forwards. He has led his position in ice time in each of the past four seasons.
New Jersey also lost free-agent forward David Clarkson in the past week to the Toronto Maple Leafs, so the three 30-goal scorers from the team that reached the 2012 Stanley Cup Final are absent from the current roster.
The Devils added forwards Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe this week during free agency to help replace Clarkson, and now Kovalchuk. Ryder and Clowe have been capable scorers in the past, but Clowe had three goals in 40 games in 2012-13.
Minus Kovalchuk, New Jersey's top six forwards include Travis Zajac and restricted free agent Adam Henrique as the likely centers, with Patrik Elias, Ryder and Clowe as solid bets to be three of the four wings. Internal candidates to fill the sixth spot would include Dainius Zubrus, 2012 first-round pick Stefan Matteau, and young players Mattias Tedenby, Andrei Loktionov and Jacob Josefson (a restricted free agent).
With Kovalchuk's contract now void, Lamoriello has an extra $6.67 million of salary-cap space (and budget room), so it is possible New Jersey becomes the landing spot for one of the top remaining unrestricted free agents.
"We've been doing everything we can going forward with what the ability is," Lamoriello said. "If there's something we can do, we'll do it. There's more room now. It's an obvious situation."
An obvious player if a free-agent move is made would be Jaromir Jagr, but Vinny Prospal, Brenden Morrow or Damien Brunner could be a good fit, though none of those players likely will be as good in 2013-14 as Kovalchuk would have been. Even signing two for the cost against the salary cap won't make up for losing Kovalchuk.
The Devils missed the postseason in 2012-13 and lost Clarkson, but added goaltender Cory Schneider in a bold draft-day trade, and Clowe and Ryder through free agency. Toss in an expected bounce-back season from Henrique, and the Devils certainly looked like a playoff contender.
Even if New Jersey adds another free agent or two, the path back to the postseason could be difficult. Not only does losing Kovalchuk hurt, but the Devils are set to play in what looks like the toughest division in the realigned NHL.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Washington Capitals were Stanley Cup Playoff teams in 2012-13, and the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers have made improvements this offseason. Three of those eight teams are guaranteed a playoff berth, and it is possible two more could snag a wild-card spot. All seven of New Jersey's new division rivals could be postseason-caliber clubs when the season starts in October.
Beyond the 2013-14 season, the outlook gets better for the Devils. Yes, they are set to yield their 2014 first-round pick because the original contract Kovalchuk signed was flagged for salary-cap circumvention, and that will hurt.
But the contract was likely to become a serious problem as he moved into his mid-30s and his play began to decline. Also, if Kovalchuk retired toward the end of the deal, the cap benefit recapture penalty would have been considerably stiffer.
The Devils now have five players under contract beyond 2014-15, and only Zajac and Clowe beyond 2015-16.
There is young talent in New Jersey to build around, including Henrique, Matteau and defensemen Adam Larsson and Jon Merrill. Schneider could be the long-term replacement for Martin Brodeur, and an excellent one at that.
Though some Devils fans might be upset Kovalchuk's announcement didn't come sooner, it is certainly possible Lamoriello would have balked at Clarkson's asking price even without Kovalchuk in the lineup.
There is no doubt losing a superstar will negatively impact the Devils on the ice in 2013-14, even if there are some Plan B options available on the free-agent market. It also is possible the organization rebounds from the loss sooner than people expect with a new, young core built around Henrique, Larsson and Schneider -- and without the specter of Kovalchuk's contract clouding the club's finances for more than a decade.