NEWARK, N.J. – Unlike the NBA’s LeBron James, the biggest prize on the NHL free agent market isn’t moving.
Ilya Kovalchuk is staying with the New Jersey Devils, agreeing to a staggering 17-year, US$102 million deal with the team.
Kovalchuk’s agent and the team announced on Monday that the high-scoring left wing has agreed to stay with New Jersey, ending weeks of speculation where the league’s leading goal scorer since 2001 would be skating next season.
“This was a long arduous process that has taken frankly a little longer than I thought,” agent Jay Grossman said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “But you know what, nothing is worth anything unless you work for it. I can tell you he is very happy to be with the New Jersey Devils.”
Kovalchuk will earn $6 million each of the next two seasons, $11.5 million for the following five seasons, $10.5 million in the 2017-18 season, $8.5 million for the 2018-19 season, $6.5 million in 2019-20, $3.5 million in 2020-21, $750,000 the following season, and $550,000 for the final five years of the unprecedented deal.
The Los Angeles Kings, New York Islanders, Devils and SKA St. Petersburg of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League talked with Kovalchuk after free agency started on July 1.
The final decision came down to the Kings and the three-time Stanley Cup champion Devils, who haven’t won a title since 2003.
Grossman refused to say that Kovalchuk decided to stay because he felt the Devils had a better chance to win the Cup again.
“This was so far complex that I don’t want to get into those questions,” Grossman said. “Obviously his goal is to win the Stanley Cup. If he didn’t think there was an opportunity to do that, then he would not have gone there.”
Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, and coach John MacLean didn’t immediately return telephone messages seeking comment.
James disappointed Cleveland Cavaliers’ fans earlier this month when he signed with the Miami Heat for a chance to chase an NBA title with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The Devils’ only major loss in free agency was defenceman Paul Martin, who went to the Atlantic Division-rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 27-year-old Kovalchuk was traded to the Devils by Atlanta in February after rejecting a $101 million, 12-year extension offered by the Thrashers.
Kovalchuk had 41 goals and 44 assists last season when he earned $7.5 million. He posted only 10 goals and 17 assists with the Devils.
Top-line forward Zach Parise believes that Kovalchuk will be much more comfortable with the Devils next season when he is with them for the entire year.
“It’ll make a big difference,” Parise told the AP. “You are throwing someone in mid-season when sometimes it is tough when you are comfortable with certain situations.”
When the trade with the Thrashers was completed, Lamoriello believed his team finally had the goal scorer it needed to make a run at a fourth Cup championship in 15 seasons.
It didn’t work out that way. Kovalchuk had two goals in the post-season when the Devils were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the opening round. It was New Jersey’s third straight exit in the first round.
The latest followed a regular season in which the Devils won the Atlantic Division and earned the No. 2 season in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“Just the way the seasons have ended the last three or four years, there has been a lot of disappointment out there,” Parise said. “Lou looks like he’s really striving to make changes and get things going in the right direction, because we have not been performing the past few years when it counts.”
The Devils have been very active since the playoffs ended. MacLean was named to replace Jacques Lemaire, who retired. The team reacquired veteran centre Jason Arnott in a trade and signed defencemen Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov and goaltender Johan Hedberg in free agency.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 NHL draft, Kovalchuk has scored 338 career goals — the most in the NHL in that period. He has only been to the playoffs twice in eight NHL seasons, winning only one game.
Kovalchuk was acquired from the Thrashers along with defenceman Anssi Salmela for forward Niclas Bergfors, defenceman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier, a first-rounder and a swap of second-round picks.