On Monday, after nearly three weeks of deliberating, left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk finally made up his mind about his hockey playing future. After flirting with the Los Angeles Kings on and off again three times, playing in Russia, or staying in New Jersey with the Devils, Kovalchuk chose the latter. Contract details have not been released, but several reports are indicating a 17-year deal worth over $100 million. I am a New Jersey Devils fan. In a few years they will be the only professional team that bares the state's name (insert a New Jersey joke here, everyone does it). The Devils won three Stanley Cups in the span of nine years, but since the last Cup in 2003, they have not made it past the second round and have not made it out of the first round in the last three years. Meanwhile, bitter rivals like the Flyers have made deep runs in the playoffs and some like the Penguins have won a Cup.
For years, the Devils would make a big splash at the deadline to add offense to the team but would never be able to retain the player they had acquired. Doug Gilmour in 1998 and Alexander Mogilny in 2001, were the biggest examples of that. But with Kovalchuk that has changed and their philosophy may have as well. You don’t pay Kovalchuk the money they are about to pay him without adapting to his style a bit. With him in the fold now, the Devils will (hopefully) finally embrace the new NHL a bit and open up the offense. Parise and Kovalchuk are a nearly as potent one-two offensive combo as Crosby and Malkin (Jeff, I said nearly, Crosby and Malkin are still the better duo). For since I can remember, the Devils have played a defensive style, known as the neutral zone trap to some (known to others as what ruined hockey) which relied on a strong defense and a goaltender and resulted in three Stanley Cups. The Devils finally have the offense to go with their strong defense and goaltending.
More importantly, the commitment to Kovalchuk is a clear sign that General Manager Lou Lamoirello is committed to doing whatever is necessary to winning at least one more Cup while goalie Martin Brodeur is in net. Lamoirello is one of the most shrewdest, sharpest and smartest GM’s in all of sports. No one gave him and the Devils a chance in hell of acquiring Kovalchuk in February and when the move didn’t create the success that was expected, no one gave him a chance to resign Kovalchuk given the Devils’ tight financial history and history of a lack of willingness to spend on offensive skill players.
Lou’s moves early in the summer, where all geared to bringing Kovalchuk back in the fold. From shedding the salaries of Jay Pandolfo and Andrew Peters with buyouts, to bringing in stay-at-home, physical defenseman Anton Volchenkov (a friend and countryman of Kovalchuk’s) to former Atlanta Thrashers teammate (and also good friend) Johan Hedberg as Brodeur’s back up (someone who will finally allow the Devils to rest Brodeur 15-20 nights during the regular season) to acquiring Jason Arnott to be the second-line center (something the Devils have lacked for several years).
The Kovalchuk re-signing does not come without is share of questions, like can the Devils retain Parise, who will he play with because he never really developed any line chemistry last year with anyone and how will the Devils sort of the fact that they are likely four million over the cap for the 2010-11 season.
Parise is scheduled to be a restricted free agent after next season and will surely see a big offer sheet roll-in from someone, but Lamoirello should never be underestimated when it comes to keeping his homegrown talent. Parise is the future captain of this squad (maybe even this year depending on the moves made to get under the cap) and is one of the best left wingers in all of hockey. Lamoirello will figure out a way to retain his homegrown sniper.
As for how they get under the cap, this will not be easy. A definite casuality will be defenseman Bryce Salvador and his $2.9 million dollar salary. If he can’t be moved via trade or waivers, he will be sent to the AHL, where his contract would not affect the cap. Brian Rolston is easily the most overpaid player on the roster but the $5 million per year his owed over the next two years will be impossible to move. Danius Zubrus is owed $3.4 million over the next three years and he could go, but he has been one of the few Devils to consistently show up the past three springs when the Devils have been knocked out in the first round. If I was making the decision, I would move captain Jaime Langenbrunner’s $2.8 million to clear some room. He is the player the Devils can actually get decent prospects or draft picks for and after the bitching he pulled last spring, he needs to go. For those who don’t know, Langenbrunner and former coach Jacques Lemaire did not see eye to eye and Langenbrunner was upset that he was a healthy scratch in an April game in Carolina to get some rest. Langenbrunner proceeded to give the coach and media the silent treatment before mouthing after Lemaire announced he was retiring. If you ask me, inexcusable behavior from any player and more so considering, it was the captain.
I think Lamoirello will ultimately trade Zubrus, banish Salavdor to the minors and move Langenbrunner to bring in a puck moving defenseman, clearing $9.1 million in a salary, likely leaving the Devils about $5 million under, pending the salary of the puck moving defenseman acquired in a Langenbrunner trade. Moving Zubrus and Langenbrunner would also allow for David Clarkson, a gritty, young, right winger to move to the Parise-Travis Zajac line and allow for some youngsters in the Devils system like left winger Mattias Tedenby and center Jacob Josefson a chance to get regular ice team on a third line paired with the veteran Rolston.
As for who Kovalchuk will play with, the likely early solution would be with the recently re-acquired Arnott and Patrik Elias. Elias was the only player Kovalchuk seemed to click with during his short stint last year and Elias and Arnott played very well together several years ago. Arnott gives the line a physical presence, which should provide Kovalchuk some open ice to move freely with the puck. The acquisition of Arnott, earlier in the summer, filled one of the Devils biggest needs in a second line center, which allowed Elias to move back to the wing, where has been a much more effective player throughout his career. It is also possible that Arnott or Elias could serve as the captain in the event Langenbrunner is moved.
At the end of the day, the Devils and Lamoriello have give themselves a fantastic chance for another Cup and will be right there with the Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia and Buffalo at the top of the East.
Running With the Devil-Van Halen