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Kovalchuk re-signs with Devils

by Shawn P. Roarke
The Devils snatched quite a soul Monday in the person of left wing Ilya Kovalchuk.

After a twist-filled script that lasted the better part of three weeks, Kovalchuk wrapped up hockey's version of a long-running summer blockbuster Monday by surprisingly re-signing with New Jersey, a move that startled the hockey world who had expected Kovy to sign with Los Angeles.

But Kovalchuk spurned the advances of Hollywood, in the form of the Kings, who had made several aggressive offers and even hosted the Russian winger in a college recruiting-style visit last week. In fact, several sources had reported that the Kings were very close to signing Kovalchuk -- agreeing on term and length of contract, but still needing to hammer out the nuances of a no-movement clause and the like.

Throughout, New Jersey President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello never backed out of the courtship process. His patience paid off with Monday's surprising announcement, which came just minutes after Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, used his Twitter feed to say his client would announce his destination later Monday.

"Ilya is excited to be continuing his career with New Jersey and knows first-hand the team's dedication and commitment to winning," Grossman said after the Devils announced the deal just before noon.

The Devils are excited to see what he can do in a full season with a team that feels it still has a legitimate chance at a title this coming season.

"We all know that, even looking at him on another team, that he's an exceptional talent," new Devils coach John MacLean told the Newark Star-Ledger. "As I've stated before, I have not heard from anybody throughout the organization a bad word about him. He's a tremendous teammate and addition. He'll have no issues playing for the team.

"He signed here for a reason -- to try to win a championship. This organization has a good history of that, so you know he wants to be part of the team. That's what I'm excited about."

That tradition of winning likely helped New Jersey outlast the Kings, who were believed to be the frontrunner after making several offers and hosting the Russian star last week's recruiting visit.

"(Kovalchuk) had two very good choices. (New Jersey) offered more money. Simple as that," Tim Leiweke, the Kings' governor and chief executive of their parent company, AEG, said in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times.

"We threw everything at him we had while leaving the cap space necessary to sign our kids. He is a great player and I am disappointed he didn't come to L.A. It was not for lack of effort or cash."

GM Dean Lombardi said the Kings did everything they could to get Kovalchuk to come to L.A.

"The job is to put the best deal you can out there that works in all quarters," Lombardi told the Times, adding that he factored in the team's ability to generate revenue, how a front-loaded contract would affect his ability to re-sign young defenseman Drew Doughty and the impact Kovalchuk would have in the locker room.

"In the end if you just say you've got to have him and pay whatever it takes, you're wrought with pitfalls. Your job is to work through it and put your best offer out there. If it don't work, it don't work. Somebody else will come along."

Kovalchuk was the biggest unrestricted free agent on the market this summer, and was heavily courted by several teams before the Kings and the Devils took center stage. Kovalchuk finished the 2009-10 season with the Devils after arriving in a blockbuster deal just prior to the Winter Olympics.

"He signed here for a reason -- to try to win a championship. This organization has a good history of that, so you know he wants to be part of the team. That's what I'm excited about."
-- Devils' coach John MacLean

Kovalchuk, who has scored 40 or more goals in each of the past six seasons, was obtained in a bold move by Lamoriello, who believed his team had a solid shot at the Stanley Cup after a season that ended with the club winning another Atlantic Division title and finishing No. 2 in the Eastern Conference.

Kovalchuk had 27 points in 27 games with the Devils after his arrival to give him 41 goals and 85 points for the season. New Jersey sent rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a 2010 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Thrashers for Kovalchuk.

But the Devils struggled to get started in the postseason and were bounced in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers, who marched all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Chicago. Kovalchuk had 6 points in that five-game ouster.

No details of the contract were announced, but if Kovalchuk makes more than $3.5 million annually -- which seems very likely considering he made $7.5 last season -- New Jersey will have to make additional moves to get under the $59.4 million salary cap before the start of the season. Teams can go as high as 10 percent over the cap until the start of the regular season.

Kovalchuk was the first selection of the 2001 Entry Draft by Atlanta and had played his entire career with the Thrashers before the trade.

In 594 games with the Thrashers from 2002-10, Kovalchuk scored 328 goals and had 287 assists (615 points). More than a third of his goals came on the power play (115). But in Atlanta he played in only four playoff games and lost all of them to the New York Rangers in 2007, managing only 1 goal and 1 assist.

Kovalchuk shared the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2004 (41 goals) with Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla. He set a Thrashers franchise record with 52 goals in 2005-06 and matched it in 2007-08.

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