NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer said the news of right wing Ilya Kovalchuk's retirement from the NHL last week certainly caught him by surprise.
During the opening day of the organization's rookie camp at the AmeriHealth Pavilion at Prudential Center on Monday, DeBoer spoke publicly for the first time regarding Kovalchuk, who signed a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League earlier Monday.
DeBoer said he did have "a couple" of conversations with New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello prior to Kovalchuk's announcement, but that he never felt the star forward's departure was imminent until July 11, the day it actually happened.
"Of course I'm disappointed," DeBoer said. "It's tough to express, but when something comes at you like that out of left field, it's obviously not something that you would even consider from where I stand. When it does hit you, it's obviously disappointing. You catch your breath for a day and get ready to move forward."
DeBoer acknowledged that Kovalchuk's departure is a big loss. He had 11 goals and was second on the team with 36 points last season, and his average ice time of 24:44 per game topped all NHL forwards.
"There's no hiding the fact it's a big hole; it's a big ice-time hole, specialty teams and in five-on-five," he said. "He's one of the best players in the world. There's a hole there and we have to find a way as a group to fill it."
Nothing has come easy for DeBoer since taking over as coach for the Devils in the summer of 2011.
After helping lead the club to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season, the organization lost captain Zach Parise via free agency to the Minnesota Wild in the summer of 2012. A string of injuries and subsequent power outages on offense ultimately cost the Devils a Stanley Cup Playoff berth last season -- the team finished 11th in the Eastern Conference while averaging 2.29 goals-per game, third-fewest in the League.
This season, he'll enter training camp without David Clarkson, 29, who left for the Toronto Maple Leafs via free agency on July 5, and Kovalchuk, who left the team six days later.
DeBoer was asked if he felt Kovalchuk set the organization back with his decision. "I don't feel that way … maybe I should, but I don't," he said. "I enjoyed working with him. He was a good pro and good teammate in the dressing room and he'll be missed -- that's my feelings. I don't go any deeper than that. Everyone has a personal life and a personal decision regarding their career, and it's not my place to step in to that area."
Kovalchuk, 30, had 417 goals and 816 points in 816 regular-season NHL games and had his streak of nine-straight 30-goal seasons snapped by the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
Clarkson, who DeBoer has known since their days with the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League, had 45 goals and 70 points in two seasons playing for DeBoer in New Jersey.
"You know my feelings toward [Clarkson] and where he's come from and the type of player he's made himself," DeBoer said. "That's life in the NHL. You're hoping to work with him again. He signed somewhere else and literally five minutes later, my feelings were really happy for him after my conversation with him. He's excited to be home in Toronto with family but we're excited to work with [Ryane] Clowe and [Michael] Ryder and the guys we have coming in."
DeBoer said the loss of some key players may mean taking a different approach in 2013-14. "You take out Parise and [Kovalchuk] … those are players who single-handedly can do some things that only a handful of players in the world can do, so we're going to have to be a different team," DeBoer said. "We're going to have to play more of a team game. We need five-man units and the systems have to be air-tight. Special teams has to be better. There will be an emphasis on all those areas because you're taking out a couple of game-breaking players, but it doesn't change [the ultimate goal]."
Lamoriello, according to DeBoer, expects the Devils to contend for the Stanley Cup every season, no matter who is in the lineup.
"You know my boss … there's no taking your foot off the gas because some of these things happen," DeBoer said. "This organization has dealt with this type of thing for the last decade, dating back to [Brian] Rafalski [in 2007] and [Scott] Niedermayer [in 2005] and on and on. You have to find a way."
The Devils added forwards Ryder, Clowe and Rostislav Olesz during free agency to help offset the the loss of Clarkson, and then Kovalchuk.
"There's no, 'What can you do now' mentality … we have to find a way," DeBoer said. "I think that's going to be the mantra. The League isn't going to stand still and no one will feel sorry for the New Jersey Devils when the puck drops in October. We have to be ready to compete with the guys we've got and we've got a good group of people here."
Mike Morreale | NHL.com | @MikeMorrealeNHL