NEWARK, N.J. — Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils turned a 32-game test drive into the longest contract in NHL history.
The high-scoring Russian forward smiled throughout Tuesday's news conference, one day after he agreed to a staggering 17-year, $102 million deal with the Devils. Kovalchuk was wooed by the Los Angeles Kings, among others, but decided to stay with New Jersey — the team that pried him from the Atlanta Thrashers in February.
Kovalchuk dismissed money as a main factor in his decision. He instead cited long-term security for him and his family and the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup with an organization that boasts three titles in 15 seasons.
"If we did not have him here or made that trade there was no chance of him being here — from both sides," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "I don't think we would've been interested in him as a free agent, nor he in us, because we didn't know enough about him as an individual to make any type of commitment."
Kovalchuk's contract, which runs through the 2026-27 season when he will be 44, tops the 15-year deal goalie Rick DiPietro got from the New York Islanders, and two-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin's 13-year pact with Washington.
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 Devils will absorb an annual salary-cap hit of $6 million — the average amount per season.
The 17 years matches Kovalchuk's jersey number — a lucky figure. He made his decision to stay on Saturday — July 17, which was also the fourth anniversary of his father's death.
"That number has followed me everywhere," Kovalchuk said. "When Lou was talking about 17 years, I said, 'Why not? Let's do it.'
"I wanted to sign long-term so I will be set for the rest of my life. I'm 27, I'm still young, but you never know what can happen."
Kovalchuk has a full no-movement clause through the 2016-17 season and a no-trade clause from the 2018-19 season until the end of the contract.
One driving point for Kovalchuk and the Devils in agreeing to such a long commitment was how well each side clicked once Kovalchuk arrived from Atlanta, the organization that drafted him with the No. 1 pick in 2001.
Kovalchuk carried major star quality, despite reaching the NHL playoffs only once in his seven full seasons with the Thrashers. But it was fair to wonder how he would fit in with the tight structure of the Devils. Kovalchuk has scored 338 career goals — the most in the NHL since he joined the league.
"We knew the type of player he was as far as his talent and skill," Lamoriello said, "but we couldn't make a judgment on how he would be in a philosophy of ours, which is fairly strict and fairly disciplined, but not overbearing. It's just that the team is the most important thing. Sometimes you might have to sacrifice some individual things to have success. That came through loud and clear from Day 1."
Few expected that New Jersey would break from tradition of not handing out long-term contracts that have become popular in the NHL since the lockout ended in 2005 and the salary-cap era began. The Devils will now need to turn to fellow star Zach Parise, who is eligible to become a restricted free agent after next season. Parise's pay day could be in the same ballpark.
Kovalchuk's time with the Thrashers ended once he rejected a 12-year, $101 million extension with Atlanta. He totaled 41 goals and 44 assists last season when he earned $7.5 million, but posted only 10 goals and 17 assists with the Devils. Kovalchuk had two goals and four assists during New Jersey's five-game, first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia.
The Devils, who last won the Stanley Cup in 2003, have been eliminated from the postseason in the first round three straight years.
"In years past it seems like we've lost a lot of key players," said Parise, one of five Devils in attendance Tuesday. "For us to be able to get him is great. I guess you can say it's uncharacteristic, but when you want to add a player, you can see how committed the organization is to getting back to where we need to be and getting things back on track because it hasn't been good the past couple of years."
Kovalchuk has won only one NHL postseason game — this year with the Devils — and refuted any notion that he has wrested the title of "face of the franchise" from goalie Martin Brodeur, who has been with the club since the 1993-94 season.
"You have to deserve to be the face of the franchise, and that guy deserves everything," Kovalchuk said. "He is definitely the Hall of Famer."
Brodeur was equally impressed by the seamless way in which Kovalchuk was integrated into the team.
"It surprised me a little bit because I didn't know. You wonder how is he going to blend in, and boom right away he was tremendous," Brodeur said. "I care about this organization. I've lived all my [professional] life here and I've seen our fan base grow and I want to make sure it continues."
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