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Kovalchuk now can focus on hockey

by Dan Rosen
The $102 million smile that Ilya Kovalchuk flashed at his press conference last month and his talk about a burning desire to win a Stanley Cup in New Jersey again resonates with Devils' fans because now they know -- with certainty this time -- the Russian sniper is their own superstar, likely for years and years to come.

Kovalchuk's 17-year, $102 million contract was approved by the NHL Monday after arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled against the League's decision to reject the contract based on circumvention of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Kovalchuk, who called himself a "Devil for life" at his gala announcement at Prudential Center, now has to prove that he was worth all the time and trouble.

"You want to be a winner," said Kovalchuk, a two-time 50-goal scorer in Atlanta. "If you're talking about the money I could have easily taken the deal in Atlanta (reported 12 years for $101 million) and been happy about that, but you never know what is going to happen and I want to win right now. I don't want to win in 10 or 12 years. I think this team is ready."

Kovalchuk waited three weeks into the free agency signing period before autographing his name on a legal document. He wanted to survey the scene, scope out his suitors and even make a recruiting visit to one of them.

He found, after spending three days in Los Angeles, that New Jersey is where he wanted to be. The Devils then found a way to give him the money he wanted while also keeping the salary cap hit at a manageable $6 million.

The NHL didn't like the deal, which is reportedly frontloaded with $95 million earned over the first 10 years and only $7 million over the last seven, so they waited only a few hours before telling the Devils that it would be rejected based on circumvention of the CBA.

Kovalchuk will be 44-years-old by the time the contract is up, and nobody can say with any certainty he'll be playing in the NHL at that age.

"I've played with guys that have played at a pretty good level at that (age)," Kovalchuk said. "Hopefully I'll keep myself in shape to still play."

The NHLPA waited almost a week before announcing it had filed a grievance on behalf of Kovalchuk to get the contract approved by an arbitrator. Bloch was jointly selected by the League and the Players' Association, and he listened to arguments from both sides at the two-day hearing in Boston last week.

He rendered his decision Monday, and as a result the League had to immediately approve the contract, the longest ever signed in NHL history.

Whether Kovalchuk will still be playing at the end of the 17 years is now a debate that can rage elsewhere. In New Jersey, for the Devils and for Kovalchuk, the time to focus on the present and the immediate future is right now.

The agents, lawyers and arbitrators are out of this now. It's up to Kovalchuk to make this marriage work on the ice.

"You know, he wanted to come here," Devils coach John MacLean said. "He's a high-end talent that wanted to come here, wanted to be part of the team, wanted to be part of the organization. That's a credit to him. We're excited about it."

Kovalchuk had 27 points in the final 27 regular-season games for the Devils last season after coming over in a trade from Atlanta. He also had 2 goals and 4 assists in the playoffs, but the Devils fell apart and lost in five games to Philadelphia.

Kovalchuk has played in only nine playoff games in his eight-year career and he's 1-8. But, with now that he's officially in the Devils' mix for what should be the rest of his career, those playoff numbers will inflate as long New Jersey keeps a competitive team around him.

"When you get a guy that is consistently scoring 40 a year or 50 and maybe 100 points, he's going to make you better. The more scoring threats you have it's great," Devils left wing Zach Parise said. "The power play in particular, if you have different options it's tougher to cover. When you add a scoring option like him, it's going to help everybody."

Parise was including himself in that mix, even though it's likely that he and Kovalchuk will rarely, if ever, play an even strength shift together. Both are high scoring left wings that coach John MacLean will probably want to keep on separate lines.

But they will again be on the same power play, just as they were last season. More importantly, from a business perspective Kovalchuk's presence has ignited Parise's excitement to maybe also be a Devil for life, or at least for the foreseeable future.

Parise is due a new contract soon (he can be a restricted free agent following the season), and with the Kovalchuk case finally resolved the Devils might now turn their attention toward locking up No. 9, though probably not for 17 years.

"The commitment to getting things going in the right direction from the management and the owners definitely makes a player want to be a part of getting this thing going in the right direction," Parise said. "You see the way we played the last few seasons is unacceptable. We've had great regular seasons, but it doesn't mean anything. You really see Mr. (Jeff) Vanderbeek and Mr. (Lou) Lamoriello's commitment to get this thing going in the right direction."

Still, with Kovalchuk's contract finally registered, the Devils are likely going to have to trim to some salary to get under the $59.4 million salary cap for the 2010-11 season. They could make those moves through trades or demotions to the AHL or elsewhere.

As for Kovalchuk, he is expected to return home to Russia to start his training and he will be in camp when the Devils open in Newark next month, when the clock starts ticking on his contract, the longest ever signed in NHL history.

He's set for life, but there's no time for him to be satisfied. Kovalchuk has a lot to live up to now.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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