Tuesday’s press conference at Prudential Center wasn’t a welcome, but a ‘Welcome back.’ Following the announcement that the Russian sniper had signed a long-term contract to stay in the Garden State, Kovalchuk got a reception at the Rock befitting one of the most important days in club history.
“You get this chance once in your lifetime,” Kovalchuk said, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the Devils’ top brass: Chairman and Managing Partner Jeff Vanderbeek, President/CEO/GM Lou Lamoriello, and Head Coach John MacLean.
After first acquiring Kovalchuk in a five-player deal with Atlanta on Feb. 4, the Devils are set to have him in the fold for seasons to come. He scored 10 goals, 17 assists in 27 games here last year, offering just a small glimpse of his offensive upside. The two-time 50-goal scorer and three-time All-Star has tallied 40-or-more goals in six straight seasons.
Monday's news of Kovalchuk's decision ended weeks of speculation over where he would land. He wound up back with the two-time defending Atlantic Division champions.
“There’s a little saying that anything easy isn’t worth it,” Lamoriello observed.
He wasn’t the only one thrilled about No. 17.
“Quite frankly, I was extremely happy,” Vanderbeek said. “We spent a lot of time, effort and patience in getting to that point. I couldn’t be happier. I’d like to welcome him back to Jersey’s Team.”
During his eight-year career, Kovalchuk has ranked among the NHL’s most prolific goal scorers. The 338 goals he’s collected over that span is best in the League, and his power-play markers (117) tie him with Dany Heatley for tops overall. A singular talent, Kovalchuk believes in a team game.
“One thing I learned in my short time here, this is a team,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s never about the one guy. [It’s a team] with a great history and a great future.”
He tasted his first postseason victory last spring but has set his sights on much more. The Stanley Cup is the goal in New Jersey this year, as it is every year. Bowing out in five games to Philadelphia left Kovalchuk feeling that there’s work yet to be done. That, he said, was the driving factor in his decision to return.
“There are many others that won the Stanley Cup here,” said Kovalchuk, whose only previous playoff appearance had been with Atlanta in 2007. “From the playoffs last season, there’s unfinished business.”
Kovalchuk thanked Lamoriello, the architect of the Devils’ three Cup titles who has laid the groundwork for a bright future. The left winger represents the biggest splash the Devils have made this summer, though not only one.
In June, the Devils tapped MacLean as their new coach. They then traded for center Jason Arnott, one of the franchise’s Cup heroes. When the free agency period began on July 1, they landed defensemen Henrik Tallinder
and Anton Volchenkov
, and shored up their goaltending with backup Johan Hedberg
. Each move addressed an area of need, strengthening the Devils for what they hope will be a long run in 2010-11.
Kovalchuk admitted to being nervous at the conference and began by reading from a statement. He had plenty of support from his teammates. Martin Brodeur
, Patrik Elias
, captain Jamie Langenbrunner, Zach Parise
and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond came in from all parts of the continent just to be there.
“This is obviously a huge day for the organization,” Langenbrunner said. “When they’re adding someone for that term, they’re showing the commitment that they have, not only to winning now, but winning for a while. He’s going to be a big part of it. You saw Zach coming from Minnesota, Marty coming from Montreal, me coming from [Lake Tahoe]… we’re glad that he’s back, we’re happy that he chose to stay. We’ve unfortunately lost a lot of guys in the last years that have made decisions to move on, and it’s great to have a guy of his caliber stick around and believe in what we’re trying to accomplish.
Langenbrunner, who was set to fly home to Minnesota after a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, made a last-second change in plans.
“That shows what kind of team we are,” Kovalchuk said. “[Langenbrunner] came all the way from Phoenix and he just got here at 2 a.m. today. What are you going to say? It’s a great support for me. I was a little nervous at the start, but they gave me that confidence. It’s very nice; I’m very thankful.”
|Elias, Parise, Langenbrunner, Brodeur, Leblond at Tuesday's conference. |
Parise, the Devils’ leading scorer last season, flew in from Minnesota on Monday night.
“We wanted to give him our support and let him know how excited we are that he’s coming,” Parise said.
He spoke highly of the Devils’ busy summer so far.
“Mr. Vanderbeek and Mr. Lamoriello are showing that it’s unacceptable the way things have ended,” he said. “We needed some change, we needed to get some new faces in here that can make a difference. You really see their commitment to getting us back on top and getting us in the right direction.”
And the coveted Kovalchuk will be the centerpiece.
“Ilya will be a part of something; a piece of what is needed to have success,” Lamoriello said, looking to the players in attendance. “The thing that I feel the best about with these fellas sitting right here, and I’ve been with a lot of them a long time, is that there is nothing more important than the team. That’s something that Ilya and I had a conversation about the first day that he came here and he has never wavered from that.”
To Elias, the day’s events helped bring a new level of attention to Devils hockey.
“You can see hockey’s getting a lot more exposure, and you can see some of the other teams doing a lot more,” he said. “I think that Mr. Vanderbeek, the owners and Lou feel that this will help. You try to do everything possible to bring more fans in because, from their side, it’s also a business. Why not take advantage of that?”
“We’re getting into the public eye now,” said the NHL’s all-time wins leader, who flew in from Montreal on Tuesday morning. “Now, our organization, if they want to do well, they need to be in the public eye a lot more. Signing deals like that, doing moves the way we’ve done, the way we’re going to be exciting, competitive on the ice, it’s great for the future. I look at the Devils for now and for the future. I’ve been a part of the past, but I want to be a part of the future, also. I’m not always going to be a player, but I want to be a Devil all my life like other players have been. For me to see commitment like that and movement forward, it’s great.”
Elias, the Devils’ all-time leading scorer, couldn’t recall anything quite like the Kovalchuk sweepstakes.
“This is the first time I’m aware of a free agent of his magnitude taking this long,” Elias said. “You kind of wonder why, like everybody else. Then you listen to him, and he said the right reasons.”
He felt Kovalchuk’s previous experience with the organization played a vital role in the decision to re-sign.
“It helped for Kovy to be here the two or three months last year at the end of the season to see what we’re all about as an organization, as a team, as individual players, and feel comfortable here,” he said.
With four division titles in the last five years, the Devils have shown themselves to be perennial contenders. Elias can see them getting even better.
“We had spurts of last year when we played well,” Elias said. “I think we still have to learn more from each other to feel more comfortable on the ice, to use each other a little bit more, to complement each other a little bit more.”
Kovalchuk will head back to Russia later this month to continue his offseason training. In the meantime, Devils fans will be gearing up for Opening Night at Prudential Center on Oct. 8.
“I’m very excited to be part of the New Jersey Devils,” Kovalchuk said. “I’ll be a Devil for life.”