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Kovalchuk ready for next phase of NHL career

by Mike G. Morreale
NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire was all smiles when he approached the podium the morning after his team had acquired one of League's premier goal scorers in Ilya Kovalchuk.

"What's going on?" Lemaire quipped. "They have a seat out for me today. Usually I'm standing -- is something happening?"

All joking aside, when a team trades for a player with the resume of Kovalchuk, a five-time 40-goal scorer, it's pretty big news and Lemaire knows that.

"We feel good (as an organization)," Lemaire said. "He's a guy who can change any game. A player that can make other players score. He's a strong athlete, a good skater with a great shot. There's no doubt he'll make this team better.

"I always talked a lot about having one line that's a threat when they're on the ice. I think we'll be able to get two, which is good, because that's like many other teams."

For Kovalchuk, the opportunity to play for a team that has already won three Stanley Cups in its history is something he relishes.

"I'm very excited because it's the first time in my career I have a chance to play for the first-class organization -- a team that won three Stanley Cups," Kovalchuk said following his first practice with his new teammates. "When I look around the locker room and see guys like Martin Brodeur, legends of this game, it's exciting."

"I'm very excited because it's the first time in my career I have a chance to play for the first-class organization -- a team that won three Stanley Cups. When I look around the locker room and see guys like Martin Brodeur, legends of this game, it's exciting." -- Ilya Kovalchuk

In preparation for the Toronto Maple Leafs at Prudential Center Friday, "Kovy" was working a line with Jamie Langenbrunner and Dainius Zubrus. Whether or not Lemaire keeps that combination intact remains to be seen. The top line was Travis Zajac centering Brian Rolston and Zach Parise, who, by the way, is no longer the leading scorer on the club. That title now belongs to the three-time NHL All-Star. Kovalchuk joins the Devils having scored 31 goals and 58 points in 49 games this season. Parise is second with 25 goals and 57 points in 55 matches.

In case you were asleep at the switch Thursday evening, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello was the official winner of the Kovalchuk sweepstakes when he acquired the 6-foot-2, 230-pound winger, along with defenseman Anssi Salmela, from the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for right wing Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, junior prospect Patrice Cormier and a 2010 first-round pick this June. The teams also swapped 2010 second-round picks.

Lemaire was asked if Kovalchuk, who is a minus-84 in seven-plus seasons in the League, would have to change anything about his game in attempt to conform to his style of coaching.

"Maybe one thing," Lemaire said before pausing. "When he gets in our end, he will have to stop -- that's all. The rest he can do anything he wants."

That's certainly music to the ears of Kovalchuk, a goal-scoring machine, who has notched 328 goals and 615 points in 594 career games -- all with Atlanta.

"I just try to play my game," Kovalchuk said. "I try to step on the ice, play my hardest and try to help team win. There are a lot of great players on this team and it's a great system here. I talked to coaches and they know what they're doing and it's exciting so I'm really looking forward to (playing) and having opportunity to do some damage in the playoffs."

He's also hoping that he has a little more success against Toronto starting goalie Jonas Gustavsson on Friday than he had in practice against Brodeur.

"Yeah, I tried to score against him today (in practice), but didn't have any luck," Kovalchuk said with a smile. "I'll save them for tonight I guess."

When told that Brodeur informed the media that he'll now be able to scout Kovalchuk even more in preparation for the 2010 Olympics, Kovalchuk smiled.

"That's OK," Kovalchuk said. "We got a lot of guys who can score goals in the Olympics and he should scout all of them -- I'll help him with that."

While the acquisition of Kovalchuk is certainly a boon to a New Jersey offense that has connected for only 15 goals in its last 10 games, Lemaire also stressed the importance of making certain his newest offensive weapon is in sync with his teammates.

"Chemistry is important with any player," Lemaire said. "Maybe you have one or two players in the League that can do some of it on their own, but they wouldn't be the same player. Alex Ovechkin is an example -- a lot of things he does on his own but if he didn't have the guys that play and complement him he would be still good but not as good.

"That's what I'm saying about Kovy," Lemaire continued. "He's a great player. He can do some things on his own, but if he has the right player with him to complement him well like moving the puck at the right time and a good shooter, that will make him as good as he can be."

Langenbrunner doesn't believe Kovalchuk will have to change his game as much as people might think.

"You bring in certain players because of who they are and not to change them," Langenbrunner told "We play a system here that everyone is expected to play so I don't see that being an issue. He's going to bring things that he does to the game that not a lot of other people can and that's why you bring in a guy like that."

"The perception of him is that he wheels and deals, but I'm sure he will adjust and people will see the other side of him," Zubrus said. "It's only going to make him better and a more complete player than he is already."

Contact Mike Morreale at

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