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Massive contract presents challenge for Kovalchuk

New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello has a theory about players and their contracts that will be put to the test, in the aftermath of his decision to sign free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a breathtaking 17-year, $102-million contract.

Actually, Lamoriello made it clear Tuesday at the press conference re-introducing Kovalchuk that it was the team's ownership group, led by Jeff Vanderbeek, the Devils' chairman and managing partner, that gave him the blessing to forge ahead with the negotiations.

But in the gospel according to Lou, now that the deal is done, the numbers on the contract become - if not meaningless exactly - secondary to what happens on the ice, and will have no bearing on performance or roles or anything else. All that matters now is that Kovalchuk becomes a piece of a winning Devils' puzzle.

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"What we want to do, simplistically, is to have success, but never change the philosophy that we've had here," said Lamoriello. "The logo in front will always be more important than the name on the back.

"When you have a lucrative contract like this, you sort of dismiss it after it's taken place.

"As of today, the contract is no more of a discussion or a thought process in my mind, nor our coaches' minds, nor our players."

It is an interesting position for Lamoriello to take, given how the negotiations lasted almost three weeks - longer if you consider that the Devils had his rights originally and thus were able to talk with agent Jay Grossman even before the July 1 date when Kovalchuk hit the open market.

Still, it is one thing for them to assert that the contract can be pushed into the background and forgotten; and another to actually do it. Certainly, the short history of the salary-capped NHL is littered with examples where just the opposite occurred; when a player signed a big-money deal and found the pressure and expectations too much to handle.

Daniel Briere essentially said that over and over during the last Stanley Cup final, in the midst of a brilliant playoff on behalf of the Philadelphia Flyers. Briere led all post-season players in scoring, but has had an uneven time of it since landing with Philadelphia as a free agent after getting a $56-million commitment over eight years that featured two years at $10-million to start off.

Similarly, when Brian Campbell was an equally underpaid member of the Buffalo Sabres, he was one of the more prized players in the NHL because he returned exceptional value for relatively small dollars. When Campbell signed an eight-year, $56.8-million contract with the Blackhawks that averages a whopping $7.14-million per season, his status suddenly changed - and now, suddenly, he is viewed as a payroll albatross.

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Nothing much changed in Campbell's game. He still does the same things well as he did previously - moving the puck is his forte; and he still has trouble, at 6-foot, 188 pounds, defending against the NHL's more gargantuan forwards.

Really, the only difference is that Campbell went from a much prized "bargain" to a player earning more than his contributions to the team warrant.

This will be Kovalchuk's challenge too. His salary-cap hit of $6-million per season isn't bad, because the contract is back-loaded, but it still means Lamoriello will likely need to move a player or two out before October; and it will oblige him to get equally creative to re-sign the Devils' homegrown star, Zach Parise, when his contract comes up for renewal next year.

So Kovalchuk has many things to prove, and if there was any doubt about what the Devils expect from him, Vanderbeek - who sat to Kovalchuk's right during the announcement - dispelled them.

"This signing is going to help us win a lot more," said the man who signs the cheques, "and that's why we ended up doing it."

The Devils have always had only middling success at the box office, whether they were playing at the Meadowlands in the Jersey swamplands, or in their new downtown Newark facility. The Devils are an organization that has had star power in the past - from Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer to future Hall Of Famer Martin Brodeur in goal - and never went out of their way to market them as individuals.

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The fact that the Devils' website trumpeted the fact that "Kovy is back" from the moment they tweeted the news of the signing may signal a new commitment to selling the sizzle rather than the steak. Filling that new building is clearly a priority.

"If we win and if we are the best we can be; if we are unbelievably competitive; if we win our share of Stanley Cups, we will be a better organization," said Vanderbeek. "People will come; they'll buy more; they'll come to more games; and certainly we will be amore prestigious organization, which I think we are, but we can always get better."

For his part, Kovalchuk stressed that the desire to win, and to find a comfortable fit for his family, were the primary reasons for his decision to stay with the Devils, rather than move elsewhere.

"Here, they know how to win," said Kovalchuk. "They've won before. They've got a guy like Lou who is always putting (out) a competitive team every year. That's where I want to be. I want to try to win every year."

Just how well Kovalchuk adjusts to being a high-priced cog in the Jersey machinery will go a long way in determining if the Devils can actually win another Stanley Cup in the foreseeable future - or if they simply maintain the status quo: a highly competitive team that, for the past six years anyway, has been unable to turn regular-season success into that championship feeling they all want so desperately to experience again.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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