"You are Sixteen, going on Seventeen..."
Devils dictator Lou Lamoriello must have an optimistic view of the future. One of the most enjoyable, consistently hilarious memes of the announcement today that the Devils will re-sign star forward Ilya Kovalchuk was Devils' fans calculating how old they will be when Ilya's contract -- said to be 17 years, $102 million by Dmitry Chesnokov of Puck Daddy -- expires in 2026-27. I will be 38. My youngest brother will be 29. Lamoriello himself will be 85. That's a lot of faith in a forward who -- sound the choruses -- has played in nine playoff games in his career, and only won once.
Through all this, it is clear that the Devils showed a measure of calm, of steadfast belief in their desire to bring Kovalchuk back to Broad St. There was no media posturing, no Hollywood "will they-won't they" rumors of ended negotiations, only to be restarted again like it seemed the Los Angeles Kings were threatening to do. We owe the Devils a big favor for simply ending all that. The Kovalchuk/Kings affair was one of the more forgettable moments in free-agent history.
Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, seemed to acknowledge this in an interview today at a Toronto sports radio station (Because when Devils' fans need to hear the latest news on their team, they need to listen to Toronto talk radio -- thanks WFAN and ESPN!) with John Shannon:
"I think Lou, with his college background at Providence College as a recruitor, picked some of the tools out of his bag and he really was able to always call seemingly at the right time, always say the right thing. Again, you go out there and you look at things and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. He had a right to do it and, ulitimately, we realized that we came back to that point."
Yes, it is clear that once again, in the face of thousands of doubters, Lamoriello has managed what seemed impossible to most outsiders. Let it always be known: In Lou We Trust (you're welcome, John). It should be noted though: this isn't a risk for Lamoriello, not at all. He'll be long gone when even the 10-year, $95 million bulky half of this contract is gone (at least sane heads would think). This is about New Jersey's future, presumably without him.
He locked in the greatest free agent in NHL history at what looks to be a cap hit of $6 million. That's the same amount as Patrik Elias, and not much more than Martin Brodeur's hometown discount. There's plenty of room to keep Zach Parise, too. Someone will get squeezed out (probably a Jamie Langenbrunner, Dainius Zubrus, or even Elias), but it appears Lamoriello has put the Devils in the best shape to win they've been in since the start of the 1999-00 season.
There is little risk placed on the rest of this Devils team as well, aside from whoever needs to be moved to make room for Kovy. Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott all just won the lottery. They've likely won themselves less concentration and coverage when attacking other team's defensive zones. They've won a ticket out of the spotlight, as Kovalchuk will now be the focal point of any and all Devils media coverage. They've likely also won a chance to play a style of hockey the Devils have rarely played in the past -- offense. It was mentioned that the Devils may look more like they did during Martin Brodeur's injury, when they would win games 6-5 as much as they did 2-1. While it may not be that drastic, this is a sigh of relief for many of them.
All the risk and pressure here lands on Kovalchuk. For a guy who put too much pressure on himself during his abbreviated stay with New Jersey last season (though he did put up a point a game) he will become the franchise's highest paid player in history and become, seemingly, the focal point of this offense. Will his play look labored, like it did last season, or will it become the Ilya under little pressure in Atlanta: an effortless superstar with the skill to take on entire teams. Not quite an Ovechkin or a Crosby, but right under that rung. This is his chance to go from mere world-class talent to hockey royalty. Here's where his legend can be told. He may have 17 years to do it, but the clock starts ticking right about ... now.