NEWARK, N.J. – Ilya Kovalchuk not only has a new US$100 million contract, the Russian superstar has a new position.
During the New Jersey Devils’ first practice of the season, new coach John MacLean moved the 27-year-old all-star from left wing to right wing, playing him with Zach Parise and Travis Zajac on what could be a high-scoring line.
“Those two are probably are among the best players in the league, so it’s always fun to play with great players,” said Kovalchuk, who scored 41 goals splitting last season between Atlanta and New Jersey.
From a hockey standpoint, putting Kovalchuk on the right side for the first time in his career may not be a major move. Forwards tend to switch sides in the offensive zone in today’s game more than in years past when players never left their lane.
The advantage for the Devils is that it combines Kovalchuk and Parise, a 38-goal scorer last season, with Zajac, an up-and-coming centre who can get them the puck and also knows how to get back and play defence.
Putting Kovalchuk on the right side instead of Parise also is a little more logical because the Russian is a right-handed shot. Parise shoots from the left side.
“I’m not used to it, but like I said, to play with those two guys, I would play in goal,” Kovalchuk said. “I have to because those are two great players and I think we’re going to have great chemistry. If we’re going to work hard and work as a group, we’re going to be very successful.”
Goaltender Martin Brodeur enjoyed playing against the line Saturday, quipping that Kovalchuk didn’t score too many.
“I think this is what puts a smile on my face the most, to see how talented we are on the ice and how big we got over the summer,” Brodeur said. “I am really looking forward to getting deeper in training camp and getting our season started, just to see how we compete with teams. I know the teams around us got better, but we did also.”
MacLean said Kovalchuk was receptive to the idea of switching sides.
“Training camps are for a little experimentation,” MacLean said. “You see what you got and what clicks and things will evolve as you go forward.”
Parise, who has spent the past five years as a left wing and developed into a top scorer, was surprised to discover that Kovalchuk would be playing with him.
“I don’t think anyone is reading too much into how we are starting and how are lines are today, but we’ll see,” Parise said. “It would be a fun line if we played like that.”
Parise also joked that with him and Kovalchuk on the same line, Zajac, who had 25 goals last season, might not get 100 shots.
“He might get 100 assists though,” MacLean said, adding that all three players are unselfish, so there is definitely enough pucks for all three.
The Devils spent a lot of time working on their transition game in practice.
“It’s something we are excited about,” Zajac said. “We are going to get the puck a lot more as far as forwards, getting the puck and moving it up quick. For us to have the puck a lot will help.”
Brodeur was simply excited to be back at work, especially after all the changes the Devils made in the off-season. They re-signed Kovalchuk to a $100-million, 15-year deal that the NHL eventually approved, added defencemen Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov as free agents and re-acquired big centre Jason Arnott.
Having MacLean as his coach also has Brodeur playing for one of his former teammates, although he is used to working with him.
MacLean was an assistant coach under Lou Lamoriello and basically ran all the practices and meetings after the Devils general manger and president took over behind the bench.
“For me to hear him talk is not something new,” Brodeur said. “He is no different than the way he was. You can change your status in hockey but your personality basically stays with you and I think Johnny, from the steps he has taken, hasn’t changed so far.”
Since winning their third Stanley Cup in 2003—the others were in 1995 and 2000—the Devils have not made it past the second round in the playoffs. They have been eliminated in the first round for the past three seasons.
“One of the beauties of playing for the Devils is that you know we are going to have a chance to be successful,” Brodeur said. “I mean if it going to happen, lately it has been tougher. You know we had some great runs and I think we are due.”
NOTES: Kovalchuk is in the process of buying a new home in New Jersey. “We’re still in negotiations,” he said. “I got good experience.” …Veteran Brian Rolston suffered a cut on his leg during his session. … The Devils held three sessions, with each being with a new group of players. Arnott, who played with Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora in his first tour with the Devils, centred a line with Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner.