NEWARK, N.J. – Superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk always planned to play for the New Jersey Devils if there was an NHL season.
On his first day back with the Eastern Conference champions, the high-scoring Russian shot down rumours that he either considered playing in Russia after the NHL reached a new collective bargaining agreement or that he was pressured by the Russian government to stay and finish the KHL season.
The 29-year-old even laughed Wednesday after a scrimmage when asked if President Vladimir Putin offered him a lot of money to stay in Russia.
“That’s not true,” Kovalchuk said. “I’m sure he’s got some other stuff to take care of. I had a great time there, we have a good team, but I have a contract here and I’m happy I’m back because I think the lockout’s ended and it’s great for all hockey, especially for the guys who weren’t able to play and waiting and practicing here. I’m happy we’re all back and it will be an exciting season.”
The lockout-shortened 48-game season will start Saturday. The Devils will play the Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y.
Kovalchuk missed the Devils’ first three practices after the new 10-year CBA was finalized, electing to play in the KHL All-Star game along with Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings. He said it was a way to thank the Russian people and the fans who already purchased tickets to the game.
That created a little concern among Devils fans, with many wondering whether Kovalchuk was going to return.
“I don’t know where you read all those comments but I have a contract here,” he said. “In the KHL, they have a rule that as soon as the lockout ends, we come back, so nobody has a choice.”
Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello understood Kovalchuk’s motivation and accepted it. He insisted he never had any reason to doubt that Kovalchuk would be back and, after watching him in the scrimmage, felt he was in good shape for the short season.
“There is no question what he means to our team as far as his play,” Lamoriello said. “He is a team player, extremely unselfish on the ice and had developed into a complete player.”
Kovalchuk returned to the United States about 5 p.m. Tuesday night. He rejoined the team on Wednesday, participating in a scrimmage against the Devils’ top minor league team.
It was an impressive return. Kovalchuk, who played 36 games with SKA St. Petersburg during the four-month NHL lockout, scored a goal on a blast from the faceoff circle in the third period and added an assist, finding Travis Zajac with a great cross-ice pass on a power play.
“He looks good,” goaltender Martin Brodeur said of Kovalchuk. “Again, we played against an American Hockey League team, here, but he still played really well and skated really well. Kovy is Kovy. It doesn’t matter what he does. He’ll be the best out there.”
Coach Peter DeBoer played Kovalchuk on a line with Zajac at centre and Dainius Zubrus at left wing.
“For a guy who got off a plane after I don’t know how long a travel day it was for him, I thought he looked pretty good. It’s nice to have him back,” DeBoer said. “You can see even in the scrimmages what he brings to our team. He had a goal and an assist and created a handful of other chances. It’s nice to have him back in the fold.”
Kovalchuk seemed surprised that there was speculation over whether he would leave Russia.
“Lou told me before I come talk to you that you might ask me about that,” he said. “I just tell you what I said, I got a contract here and it wasn’t a thing in my mind that I wouldn’t come back.”
Kovalchuk found playing hockey back home very enjoyable, noting fans hounded him as much there as NHL fans. The one thing his teammates are not going to let him forget is his so-called figure skating performance on Saturday as the skills competition before the All-Star Game in Chelyabinsk.
Teammates didn’t bring it up, although DeBoer said the videotape is bound to find its way to a team meeting a few times this season.
“Actually there was a lot of smiling,” Kovalchuk said of teammates’ reaction to his figure skating. “It seems like everybody was happy to get together finally.”
NOTES: Lamoriello said that C Adam Henrique has been cleared to resume skating. He had surgery roughly six weeks ago to repair a ligament in his left thumb. It will still be a couple of weeks before he starts shooting the puck. … DeBoer plans to name the Devils’ new captain before Saturday’s opener at the Islanders. Kovalchuk refused to campaign for it, saying he’s been a captain before. … Top draft pick Stefan Matteau, up from juniors for training camp, scored a power-play goal against Brodeur on a shot from the faceoff circle. Devils F Patrik Elias shouted “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!” from the bench, reminiscent of Howie Rose’s call after Stephane Matteau, the rookie’s father, scored in double overtime for New York in Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals. That goal was also scored against Brodeur. … Lamoriello said “next question” when asked if Matteau might earn a spot on the team if he continues to score. … Lamoriello also wouldn’t shed any light on whether former Montreal Canadiens F Mathieu Darche would be offered a contract. He is on a tryout.