NEWARK // The New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk have agreed to the second-longest contract in American sports, a 17-year, US$102 million (Dh374.6m) deal that will keep Kovalchuk on the team's payroll until he is 44 years old. Kovalchuk finished last season with the Devils after being traded from Atlanta. His decision to stay with New Jersey ends weeks of speculation as to where the league's leading goalscorer since 2001 would be skating next season.
The contract is the longest ever in the National Hockey League, and is eclipsed only by the 25-year, $25m deal that Magic Johnson signed with the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA in 1981. Kovalchuk, 27, has scored at least 40 goals each of the last six seasons. Reports said he was adamant about getting a long-term deal and he negotiated with the Devils, the Los Angeles Kings, the New York Islanders, and SKA St Petersburg in his native Russia.
"This was a long, arduous process that has taken frankly a little longer than I thought," said Jay Grossman, Kovalhcuk's agent. "But, you know what? Nothing is worth anything unless you work for it. I can tell you he is very happy to be with the New Jersey Devils." The deal is somewhat salary-cap friendly for the Devils, who will absorb an annual hit of $6m - the average amount per season. Kovalchuk will make much more than that in the early portion of the contract, but will remain on the Devils' books through 2026/27.
Kovalchuk will earn $6m each of the next two seasons, $11.5m for the following five seasons, $10.5m in 2017/18, $8.5m for 2018/19, $6.5m in 2019/20 and $3.5m in 2020/21. He then makes $750,000 the following season and $550,000 for the final five years of the unprecedented deal. Grossman refused to confirm that Kovalchuk stayed with the Devils because he felt they had a better chance to win the Stanley Cup. "This was so far complex that I don't want to get into those questions," Grossman said. "Obviously his goal is to win the Stanley Cup. If he didn't think there was an opportunity to do that, then he would not have gone there." The team's only major loss during the off-season was defenceman Paul Martin, who signed with Pittsburgh, their Atlantic Division rivals. Kovalchuk, 27, was traded to the Devils by Atlanta in February after rejecting a 12-year, $101m extension offered by the Thrashers. He had 41 goals and 44 assists last season and earned $7.5m, but posted only 10 goals and 17 assists with the Devils. Top-line forward Zach Parise believes that Kovalchuk will be much more comfortable with the Devils next season when he is with them for the entire year. "It'll make a big difference," Parise told The Associated Press. "You are throwing someone in mid-season when sometimes it is tough when you are uncomfortable with certain situations." When the trade with the Thrashers was completed, Lou Lamoriello, the president and general manager of the Devils, felt they finally had the goal scorer they needed to make a run at a fourth Stanley Cup title since 1995. It did not work out that way. Kovalchuk had two goals in the post-season, but the Devils were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the opening round. It was New Jersey's third consecutive exit in the first round. Kovalchuk has won only one play-off game in his NHL career. The Devils have been very active since the play-offs ended. John MacLean was named the new coach, replacing Jacques Lemaire, who retired. The team re-acquired the veteran centre Jason Arnott in a trade and signed defencemen Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov and goaltender Johan Hedberg in free agency. The first pick overall in the 2001 NHL draft, Kovalchuk has scored 338 career goals, the most by any player in the league in that period. He has been to the play-offs only twice in eight NHL seasons. Kovalchuk was acquired from the Thrashers along with Anssi Salmela, for Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, first-round prospect Patrice Cormier and a swap of second-round picks. * AP