Shortly after stepping on the ice at the Prudential Center, Ilya Kovalchuk and New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire skated around the rink a couple of times, cracked a couple of jokes and shared some laughs.
The smiles on their faces were evident from one end to the other, and they said it all.
Coming to the Devils in a blockbuster five-player deal with Atlanta will give the 26-year-old Kovalchuk his first real chance to compete for a Stanley Cup.
“I am very excited,” he said after taking part in the pregame skate for Friday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “This is the fist time in my career I got a chance to play for a first-class organization, the team who won three Stanley Cups. You just look around the locker room, and guys like Marty Brodeur, legends in this game, and it’s very exciting.”
For Lemaire, the joy is just as great. A very good defensive team that has struggled scoring lately now has one of the NHL’s top scorers. His 328 goals since 2001 leads the league.
“He is a guy that can change a game, a player that can make other players score,” Lemaire said. “Strong athlete, good skater, a great shot, so there is no doubt that he is going to make this team better. I talked a lot about having one line that is a threat on the ice, but I think we will be able to get two.”
Kovalchuk skated with Dainius Zubrus and Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner on Friday morning, although Lemaire refused to say whether the trio would play as a line against Toronto. Expect him to play the point on the power play.
Kovalchuk, who has 31 goals this season, didn’t seem to care.
“I just want to play my game, step on the ice and play my hardest and help the team win,” said Kovalchuk, who made the playoffs once while in Atlanta.
“You are adding a guy that can change games and does change games quite often,” said Langenbrunner, the captain of the U.S. Olympic team.
In joining the Atlantic Division-leading Devils, Kovalchuk comes to a franchise that has made the playoffs 12 consecutive years. It last won the Cup in 2003.
The trade engineered by Devils’ chief executive Lou Lamoriello created a lot of buzz in the locker room. Not only was there a media throng worthy of a playoff game, but there was a sense among the New Jersey players that expectations are greater now.
“We feel our organization is making that push,” Zubrus said. “You don’t get a guy like that if you don’t believe you have a chance, so obviously him coming here gives us a better chance. He is one of those guys who will make our team better. We have a lot of good players here, and no matter what your role, everybody has to be better.”
Brodeur was ecstatic about the trade, in which the Devils shipped defenceman Johnny Oduya, rookie forward Niclas Bergfors, junior prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft pick this year for Kovalchuk and defenceman Anssi Samlema. The teams also swapped second-round draft picks this year.
“He is up there with (Alexander) Ovechkin with how he can release his shot and how hard it comes,” Brodeur said. “There aren’t many guys in the league who can shoot like that and his stats show it all.”
Zach Parise, whose 25 goals were leading the Devils until the trade, said Kovalchuk is one of those players who creates matchup problems for opponents.
“He has the ability to take over a game, dominate a game and go end to end,” Parise said. “There are only a couple of guys who can do that in the league and he is one of them.”
The trade ends a couple of hectic weeks for Kovalchuk, who can still become a free agent after this season. He rejected a 12-year, US$101 million contract extension offered by the Thrashers and spent the last 48 hours knowing that he was going to be traded.
Kovalchuk did not know whether the Devils would offer him a new contract. He’s just happy to be here now, noting he enjoyed his time in Atlanta and that it will always be his second home.
“My wife is expecting, but she said it’s a great opportunity for you to win the Cup, and that’s why I am here,” Kovalchuk said.