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Kovalchuk arrives at the Rock

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Kovalchuk: "I’m ready 100 percent if not more."
Ilya Kovalchuk’s summer featured many moments of uncertainty, but there was one thing he always knew for sure. He wanted to be a New Jersey Devil.

He arrived at Prudential Center on Friday, when veterans reported to training camp for their physicals and photo headshots. The vets hit the ice Saturday morning to begin preparations for the 2010-11 season.

Finally, Kovalchuk can focus on what he does best: score goals.

“It feels good,” he told reporters. “We finally got what we were looking for both sides, both New Jersey and myself. We can put that whole process behind us. Now we have to think about winning and myself about playing hockey”

Kovalchuk’s offseason included signing a long-term deal with the Devils in July only to see it rejected by the NHL for salary cap circumvention, then voided by an arbitrator. He signed a second long-term deal that was approved after the League and the Player’s Association negotiated amendments to the Collective Bargaining Agreement regarding the length of player contracts.

After all those weeks of waiting for the page to turn, the Russian sniper is ready for a new chapter. He credited Devils Chairman and Managing Partner Jeff Vanderbeek and President/CEO/General Manager Lou Lamoriello for getting the job done.

“It was difficult a little bit because not too many guys face that situation,” Kovalchuk said. “But I’m glad it’s all behind us and I think all that process just makes us stronger. This organization, it starts from Mr. Vanderbeek; Lou did a tremendous job and my agent and all the guys they were really supportive. It’s nice to see.”

Despite the complications with the first contract, Kovalchuk never doubted that his NHL home would be the Garden State.

“I told Lou either way that the only team I want to play with in the NHL is New Jersey,” he said. “That was the only team I was talking to after that.”

No other NHL team entered the mix between the first and second deals: “I told my agent that’s not going to be fair to anybody. I love everything here and the way Mr. Vanderbeek and Lou treated me, it wouldn’t be fair to start talking to someone else.”

Still, the process hasn’t come without additional cost. The League announced a resolution to the contract dispute Monday and penalized the Devils $3 million plus a first- and a third-round pick.

“It’s always bad when your team gets penalized,” Kovalchuk said. “But that’s between the owner, the GM and the League. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s bad but what’re you going to do? That’s reality. We fought so long and that was the final thing that they wanted to do, so OK, it’s going to make us stronger and we just have to play now.”

The approved deal also requires the Devils to clear cap space with roster moves that will impact one or more veterans. That’s something the team will need to address in time for the start of the regular season, which the Devils open at home against the Dallas Stars on Friday, Oct. 8.

“My job is to play,” said Kovalchuk. “Lou’s job is to find a way to work out everything. He’s very professional. He’s worked in this business for more than a day, so he knows what he’s doing. My job is now to focus on the game and be ready for the big season.”

The two-time 50-goal scorer makes the Devils a formidable Eastern power. The two-time defending Atlantic Division champs further bolstered their lineup with the offseason trade for Jason Arnott and the signings of Johan Hedberg, Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov.

“We have a great team, definitely – we’re one of the teams that can win,” Kovalchuk said. “I think everybody realizes that. Last year I came here, I didn’t know much. Now it’s more comfortable to come, especially with the guy who signed: Volchie I know him for a long time and Moose I think that’s a great addition to our team because he’s a true winner and has a very similar style to Marty, two great veterans. He’s going to help a lot.”

He and Hedberg are close friends after spending three-plus seasons together with the Thrashers.

“He’s a great guy and I think he’s a great goalie,” Kovalchuk said. “The way he played last year – unbelievable. Because when you face 50 shots every night, and you win a lot of games the way he did, that means a lot. I think he’ll help Marty a lot. You don’t have to help Marty, but if sometimes to give him a little rest, you’ve got another great goalie who can win games for you. That’s always good.”

Kovalchuk understands there’s a lot riding on his performance, too. With six straight 40-goal seasons to his credit, No. 17 is unfazed by the high expectations. The Devils are looking to snap a streak of three-straight first-round playoff exits.

“I think yeah, it is pressure but it’s a good pressure,” he said. “You want to win, that’s why we play.”

His teammates have been behind him from the start.

“They were supporting me all the way,” he said. “My agent told me a lot of guys – Marty, Jamie, Clarky, Zach – they’re all saying good things. They’re supporting me and that’s very important.”

Unlike last season, when he arrived in February, Kovalchuk is primed for a fresh start with Jersey’s Team in training camp.

“It’s definitely more comfortable,” he said. “You know all the guys and all the people around the team. You’re coming home, especially when you know everything’s settled down and your family will be with you, that’s a big factor. When you’re by yourself, you still  didn’t feel that comfortable the way you want to. Now everything’s behind us and we’ll be together here and I’m sure they’ll enjoy their life in New Jersey.”
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