Kovalchuk helps Devils maintain momentum

Since the NHL began operating under its current collective bargaining agreement in July 2005, superstar contracts have only increased in duration. And none has been lengthier than the 15-year pact to which the New Jersey Devils signed left wing Ilya Kovalchuk in September 2010.

The Russian scorer performed well down the stretch and in the playoffs as a late-season rental in 2009-10. Yet, after signing that decade-and-a-half-long contract — it was worth $100 million, according to capgeek.com — Kovalchuk and the rest of his ‘mates started 2010-11 so badly that New Jersey fans could not help wondering if Devils management had backed the wrong horse.

Was the front office ruing Kovalchuk’s deal as much as the Islanders must regret the length of Rick DiPietro’s 15-year pact?

But Kovalchuk, along with his teammates, flipped the switch halfway through last year and were the league’s hottest team in the regular season’s final months. And, at least through the early part of this season, it looks like the hot streak carried over.

Kovalchuk is the Devils’ leading scorer with two goals and two assists through the first four games, and he’s one of the biggest reasons New Jersey has begun the season 3-1-1.

The Devils scored the fewest goals of any NHL team last year (208) and generated the fifth-fewest shots on goal (28.6 per game).

Even though newly minted captain and 40-goal scorer Zach Parise is back, not much has changed. The Devils have scored only 10 goals through their first five games, maintaining the worst goals-per-game average in the league despite their record.

All the more reason for first-year coach Pete DeBoer to be leaning on Kovalchuk, who leads all forwards with a little more than 28 minutes per game. Second is Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, at 22:43.

But with other veterans on the team and a new captain, Parise, Kovalchuk says he’s not much different than the rest of the Devils on the bench or in the dressing room.

"We’re all vocal here," he said after the team’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Sharks on Friday night. "Everybody’s got a voice, and it doesn’t matter who you are."

When the Devils are at even strength, Kovalchuk has played with linemates who are talented but have minimal NHL experience. He has skated mainly with sophomore center Jacob Josefson and right wing Nick Palmieri and has seen shifts with the Devils’ fourth line and penalty kill. He also plays the point when the team is on the power play.

Josefson, however, will be out for an extended period after breaking his clavicle as a result of a crash into the end boards Friday in the loss to San Jose.

Dainius Zubrus played the remainder of the game between Kovalchuk, who played a whopping 32:25, and Palmieri.

"It’s fine, I’ve played with (Kovalchuk)," Zubrus said. Patrik Elias, sitting in the next locker stall over, jokingly interjected, "Playing with God?"

The three could stay together with the Devils, who now are even more depleted at center. Travis Zajac is expected to miss at least the first two months of the season after undergoing Achilles’ tendon surgery.

After losing Josefson, New Jersey surrendered 20 shots on goal during the second period and was outshot 34-13 over the final 45 minutes.

"I don’t think we got enough cycles and puck possessions," Zubrus said. "I think we need to do that a little more. Sometimes we did, we got some good looks, but it wasn’t enough."

Cycles and puck possessions — and more minutes for Kovalchuk?

Maybe. With five points in his first five games, Kovalchuk has shown that he is up to the tall task.

Atlantic Division notes

The Rangers’ Marian Gaborik scored his team’s first power-play goal of the season, five games into the campaign, in Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win in Calgary. Forward Brandon Prust scored the team’s first shorthanded goal in the win. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist debuted the Rangers’ “Broadway Hat,” after his stellar performance in Tuesday’s 4-0 win in Vancouver. Expect the fedora-style lid, awarded to the Blueshirts’ top performer in victories, to play a starring role this year in HBO’s "24/7." . . . Devils goalie Martin Brodeur has not played since leaving the team’s Oct. 13 game against Los Angeles. He is reportedly hoping to play on the team’s four-game trip starting Oct. 22 in Pittsburgh. Johan Hedberg has performed well in Brodeur’s absence. . . . The Islanders, off to an impressive start by winning three of their first four games (all at home), flunked their first road test of the year by losing 4-1 in Tampa Bay. . . . The Flyers recalled center Brayden Schenn from the AHL on Oct. 19. Schenn, 20, was drafted fifth overall in 2009 by the Kings and was traded to the Flyers this summer in the deal involving Mike Richards. He put up four goals and four assists in only four games for Adirondack. . . . The Penguins have been dealing with injuries to star centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby but are still one of the league’s hottest teams with a 5-2-2 record. Left wing James Neal is tied for the league lead in goals with seven. Neal scored once in 20 games after being acquired from the Stars last season.