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By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It was anything but a smooth process, but Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils were finally able to consummate their long summer courtship in the early morning hours this past Saturday.
Two months after hitting the open market, Kovalchuk -- this summer's most sought-after free agent -- was officially signed to a long-term deal by New Jersey after the NHL approved the most recent contract agreed upon by the Russian winger and the Devils.
Of course, Kovalchuk's initial 17-year, $102 million deal with the Devils was rejected by the league because the NHL felt that contract deliberately circumvented the salary cap. The league also took a long, hard look at the 15- year, $100 million deal that was eventually approved around 3:00 a.m. (et) on Saturday, September 4th. The contract was originally submitted to the league on August 27, but as it turns out the league and the NHL Players Association were discussing much more than Kovalchuk's prospective contract.
Along with the Kovalchuk signing, the NHL and NHLPA also announced Saturday morning that they had agreed on a new set of rules regarding contracts of five years or longer in length. Basically, the new arrangement is designed to discourage teams and players from agreeing on deals that try to extend a contract well into the player's 40s. Under the old rules, a longer contract such as Kovalchuk's 15-year deal that is slated to end when he is 42 years of age, has a smaller cap hit because the average annual salary is lower.
The agreement also effectively ends the NHL's investigation into contracts like those of Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Philadelphia's Chris Pronger. The league began investigating those deals and other contracts last month and there was speculation that the NHL was planning on voiding the older contracts if the NHL felt they deliberately circumvented the salary cap.
The NHL was right to give up its campaign against the older contracts in order to gain greater control over future deals. It never seemed possible that the league would be able to void a player like Luongo's deal and make him a free agent. The Canucks goaltender is an icon in Vancouver and it simply would have been wrong to strip the city of a beloved player simply due to a legal argument. The league has a right to void contracts, but doing so retroactively would have become an extremely messy situation.
Getting back to the free agent contract at hand, we can finally talk about the impact Kovalchuk will have on the ice for the Devils this season. He began his New Jersey career last February when he was traded from Atlanta to the Garden State, but received mixed reviews during his first few months with the Devils.
Of course, the contract will have an immediate impact on New Jersey financially because the Devils will be forced to shed about $3 million from their overall team salary by the end of training camp in order to get under $59.4 million. The cap situation will be even trickier to deal with considering the Devils will have to make the necessary cuts while still adding two players to their NHL roster.
Kovalchuk is the type of rare scoring talent worth shaking up your roster for, but the big question is can the 27-year-old make the jump from goal-scorer to a proven winner. He has 338 goals in 621 career games and 10 of those came in 27 games with the Devils at the end of the 2009-10 regular season.
However, Kovalchuk's lack of playoff success has been widely discussed and some folks think a guy who has been on the winning side just once in nine career postseason contests is not worthy of taking up $6.6 million of space on the salary cap every year.
While I can see how Kovalchuk's postseason disappointments are an issue, it all seems to be blown out of proportion. Like his countryman Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Kovalchuk has been pegged as a highly-skilled offensive player who wilts under the pressure of the postseason. That categorization is unfair in both cases because it commits the cardinal sin of boiling down a team's successes to a single player. Certainly, guys like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk deserve more blame than their teammates when the club bows out early in the postseason, but neither player is a general manager and they can only control so much of what happens on the ice.
After all, Kovalchuk had six points (2 goals, four assists) in five games during a first-round playoff loss against Philadelphia last spring. A closer look at the series would tell you that he probably played a little worse than those statistics suggest, but he obviously wasn't unproductive or in any way a hindrance to his team beating the Flyers.
It will also be interesting to see if Kovalchuk's status as the Devils' resident superstar can take some pressure off fellow Jersey left winger Zach Parise. The 26-year-old Minnesotan notched 45 goals and 94 points in 2008-09 and followed up with a solid 38-goal, 82-point campaign last season, Having a top-flight scoring threat on each of their top-two lines for an entire season will almost certainly make the Devils more consistent on offense than they have been in recent years.
In fact, part of the reason Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello wanted Kovalchuk so badly is that the legendary GM is looking towards a near future without goaltender Martin Brodeur, who at 38 years of age is winding down a Hall-of-Fame career. With Brodeur as the centerpiece for the last two decades, Lamoriello and the Devils were able to claim three Stanley Cup titles by playing an effective, if not exciting, brand of defensive hockey.
However, with Brodeur nearing 40 years of age, the Devils are preparing for the departure of their franchise netminder. It's possible that Brodeur still has a few good years left, after all he went 45-25-6 with a 2.24 goals-against average last, but it's clear he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
Also, the hiring of head coach John MacLean, who is expected to bring a more offensive style of play to the Devils, is a clear departure from Lamoriello's strategy to bring Jacques Lemaire back into the fold as the club's head coach last season. Lemaire is regarded one of the best defensive minds of his generation, but his second tour of duty with the Devils fell flat.
If MacLean can get the Devils to become an offense-first kind of club, it will be with Kovalchuk and Parise leading the way. Perhaps, MacLean's hiring was even part of Lamoriello's master plan to lure Kovalchuk into making Newark his permanent hockey home.
It's unlikely that Lou and the Devils will completely abandon their neutral- zone trapping ways, but it's obvious that the makeup of New Jersey hockey is being tweaked.
Brodeur is not gone yet, but for better or worse, Kovalchuk is now the new face of the Devils.