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Kovy ready to meet increased expectations

by Phil Coffey
Despite a tumultuous and controversial summer, Ilya Kovalchuk cannot be dissuaded from having vision of silver -- namely a Stanley Cup -- dancing in his head now that he is a New Jersey Devil for the next 15 years.

"The expectation is different, that's for sure," Kovalchuk said upon joining the Devils last season. "I don't want to just be in the playoffs. That's not my goal. You want to win and I think everyone in this locker room is on the same page so that's very important."

Kovalchuk, the most prized free agent available during the summer, returned to New Jersey, where he had been traded during the 2009-10 season. Not that the process was easy. Once contract terms were agreed to by player and team, the contract did not meet League requirements, so it was back to the drawing board. With that obstacle cleared, Kovalchuk now can concentrate on helping New Jersey become a four-time Stanley Cup champion.

"My job is to play, and Lou's job is to find a way to work it out," Kovalchuk said of President and GM Lou Lamoriello on the first day of training camp. "My job now is to focus on the game and get ready for the season.

"I worked here before and I knew how it felt to be in this organization. It was one of the main reasons I came back here," Kovalchuk said.

"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 told upon joining the team last season in a trade with the Atlanta Thrashers that sent forward Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft pick to the Thrashers. "When I look around the locker room and see guys like Martin Brodeur, legends of this game, it's exciting."

"For me, it was how he blended with the team right away," Brodeur told "It took him a week after everybody was kind of looking at him all the time and looking at what he was doing, it was fun to have him around. That surprised me a little bit because I didn't know. You figure when a Russian player comes in -- we only had (Vladimir Zharkov) there, and he's a young guy -- so it's how is he going to blend in and boom, right away, it was tremendous."

Kovalchuk, just 27, scored 10 goals and added 17 assists in his 27 regular-season games with the Devils, then had 2 goals and 4 assists in five playoff games against the Philadelphia Flyers in a disappointing first-round loss.

"I think we really addressed the areas that we need to get better," said Zach Parise, New Jersey's other offensive dynamo, who scored 38 goals and 44 assists last season.

"You look at the teams that have been winning, the teams who have been doing well, they play an offensive, puck possession, aggressive style of game and that's the way that the team seems to be winning right now," Parise said. "We can get more aggressive in our style of play and forecheck. When we do that, sometimes we do play like that and when we do that's when we play well. We get killed when we sit back a little too much."

There were times when Parise wondered if Kovalchuk would remain his teammate in 2010-11, so he was relieved to see the uncertainty regarding Kovalchuk's future resolved.

"At the beginning I watched it quite a bit and when it dragged on, it dragged on to more of a tell-me-when-it's-over type of thing," Parise said. "I was pretty confident that we were going to get him eventually, but I'm just glad it's all said and done with now."

What will be the impact of having Kovalchuk around from the start of the season?

"Well, for him, I think it will be easier for him to get adjusted to the way we play with certain linemates and for us, the same thing," Parise said. "We will get more comfortable playing with him. We won't try and force pucks to him like we tried to last year.  It didn't work out for us."

Having Kovalchuk and Parise gives New Jersey two bona-fide scoring stars, both blessed with speed and strong offensive instincts. But as Brodeur pointed out, Kovalchuk is a wide body at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds and can play a more physical game.

"You can look at Zach and it's kind of hard to say the kid doesn't have talent and the drive, but Ilya's got four or five inches on him and maybe 50 pounds on him," Brodeur told "Definitely for his size and ability, he's a guy that we never really saw here in Jersey. We had some good players, but this guy is a top dog.

"I think it's going to give room to Zach," Brodeur said. "Teams just cannot key on Zach all night long because Kovy is going to be there and vice versa. Especially with the way we were going offensively, we needed something to give us a spark and we did it in a big way."

With six consecutive 40-goals seasons, Kovalchuk is expected to be a game-changer for the Devils. As Brodeur indicated, despite a history of success, New Jersey hasn't had a player of Kovalchuk's offensive skills -- 338 goals and 304 assists in 621 NHL regular-season games --  in the lineup before.

"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."

One that figures to improve now that Kovalchuk is aboard for the long haul.

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