NEWARK, N.J. - Ilya Kovalchuk was back among his New Jersey Devils teammates Friday, trying hard to put a tense summer of contract negotiations, league rejections and renegotiations behind him.
It may be tougher than it seems.
Kovalchuk took pains to separate himself from the punishment the NHL levied on the Devils stemming from the league's rejection of his original 17-year, US$102-million contract—the $3-million fine and the loss of a third-round draft pick this year and a first-rounder in one of the next four seasons.
"It's always bad when your team is penalized," Kovalchuk said. "But that's the relationship between the general manager and the league. What are you going to do?"
When asked if the NHL's punishment was fair, Kovalchuk replied, "No. But that's reality."
But the reality of the players skating around him in Saturday's first skate of training camp will be much different. Kovalchuk will stand as a constant reminder of the cost of the revamped 15-year, $100-million deal that helped put the team $3 million over the league's salary cap.
Some of them will have to be either demoted or traded to achieve cap compliance.
As the players reported for physicals and individual publicity photos, though, Kovalchuk heard nothing but greetings for a man the Devils hope will at least equal his 42.25 career goal-scoring average over his first eight years in the NHL.
"They were supporting me all the way," Kovalchuk said the morning after he arrived in New Jersey from a summer split between Miami and Moscow. "A lot of guys were smiling. Jamie (Langenbrunner), Zach (Parise), they were all saying good things.
"They were supporting me, and that's very important."
Langenbrunner did indicate a sense of uneasiness could loom over the team during camp.
Langenbrunner, for instance, has a no-trade clause, but the captain and his $2.8-million salary theoretically could be demoted to the AHL for partial relief. The same could hold true for Danius Zubrus and his $3.4-million salary, or Colin White, who is due to make $3 million.
"We've got to get under the cap, and I think that's going to weigh on some guys' minds," Langenbrunner said. "Any of us are vulnerable.
"Obviously, the team is not in a great bargaining position. Everyone knows we have to cut salary, so it's a question of what other teams will take."
Kovalchuk was just happy to have his summer of turbulence behind him. He had thought at one point about signing with the new Kontinental League in Russia after the NHL rejected the original contract on grounds that it circumvented salary cap rules. But he wanted to stay with the Devils after playing seven full years and the first two-thirds of last season with the Atlanta Thrashers.
"At first, I didn't know where I was going to go," the 27-year-old Kovalchuk said. "But I'm glad I stayed."
He said the summer was harder on his wife. He plans to move his family into a New Jersey house next week.
"Everything's behind us, and we'll all be together here," Kovalchuk said. "She was more nervous than me.
"She was wondering where we were going to be and stuff. I told her to relax a little bit. We'll be OK."
He had planned to settle in New Jersey for the next 17 years. Instead, he's got a 15-year contract.
"I gave them a two-year discount," he said.