New-look clubs collide
Energized by the acquisitions of Dion Phaneuf and Freddy Sjostrom, and strengthened in net by Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the host Leafs took it to the Devils in a 3-0 thumping Tuesday at Air Canada Centre.
Friday night, it becomes the Devils' turn. A day after dealing for Ilya Kovalchuk, the Devils will see the Russian superstar make his red-and-black debut. Jonas Gustavsson was expected to start for Toronto.
"Is there a special event? I have a seat today," Jacques Lemaire said, hamming it up at his especially well-attended press conference Friday morning. "I used to stand all the time and now I have a seat. What's happening?"
Though Lemaire was quick to joke before settling in for the media's questions, Kovalchuk has made his club into a serious contender in the Eastern Conference. He had learned two days earlier from team President/CEO/GM Lou Lamoriello that the trade had become a possibility.
"He's a guy that can change a game, a player that can make other players score," Lemaire said of Kovalchuk. "He's a strong athlete, good skater, great shot, so there's no doubt he's going to make this team better. I talked a lot about having one line that is a threat for when they're on the ice, but I think we'll be able to get two, which is good."
What started as a small chance became reality on Thursday.
"When your boss is talking to you about certain trades that are as big as this, you say, 'Well, he's trying to do something,' but you never believe it's going to happen," Lemaire said. "Every year that you're coaching, your GM is trying to make some moves to make the team better. Most of the time it just doesn't materialize. So you think about it quick and say, 'This would be great,' but you have to wake up next day and life goes on.
"When he called me (Thursday) night and said the deal is done, I was quite happy."
Kovalchuk participated in the Devils' morning skate on a line with Dainius Zubrus and Jamie Langenbrunner. Lemaire wouldn't say whether that trio would remain intact for Friday's game, though he indicated he'd try to find the best fit for his new No. 17.
"Chemistry's important with any player," he said. "Maybe you have one or two players in the League that can do some of it on their own, but they wouldn't be the same player. Take (Alex) Ovechkin for example. He can do a lot of things on his own, but if he didn't have the guys that are playing with him; that complement him very well; that move the puck well, he would still be good, but not as good.
"That's what I'm saying about Kovy. He's a great player, he can do some things on his own, but if he has the right player with him, that complements him well and gives him the puck at the right time – he's a good shooter – that will make him as good as he can be."
Kovalchuk is joining a Devils group that has given up a League-best 2.24 goals per game. Defensive responsibility will have to be a part of his game under Lemaire.
The coach foresees only one change: "When he gets in our end, he will have to stop. That's all. The rest, he can do anything he wants."
Lemaire has experience coaching game-breakers. While in Minnesota, he helped guide Marian Gaborik to five seasons of 30-or-more goals, including a 42-goal campaign in 2007-08. He compared those current and former players, who will face each other at the Garden on Saturday night.
"I think (Kovalchuk) has better skills to beat people one-on-one," he said. "Gaborik is probably quicker on his release. His release has to be the best in the League. That's why he gets close, he gets that quick release that surprises a lot of goaltenders."
Lemaire, who led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1995, wasn't ready to anoint this year's club as the beast of the East. Not yet, anyway.
"With the move, we're still in the mix," he said. "It doesn't change. There's a lot of good teams there. If any of you watched Washington (rally from two goals down at MSG) last night, it's a good team. They're an excellent team. So there's a lot of good teams in the League. It's going to be a battle for any one of them."
The other player the Devils acquired is a more familiar face. Defenseman Anssi Salmela, whom the Devils sent to Atlanta in a deadline deal for Niclas Havelid last year, returned to New Jersey in the Kovalchuk exchange.
Salmela, 25, has one goal and four assists in 29 games this season. He made 17 appearances with New Jersey last year.
"I saw him a little bit on tape yesterday," the coach said. "I think he's going to fit well. He's a mobile defenseman, has a decent shot, can move the puck. He has that offensive ability that he can bring on at different times, which we need, obviously. To really get a good view of this guy, I would have to wait a little longer to see him play more."
Kovalchuk, like Salmela, is poised to pay major dividends for a winning organization.
"You have to say the Devils have been successful for a long time," Lemaire said. "It's a good organization."
He continued: "We've been in the playoffs for a long time. It's a winning environment that he may get from this. I don't think production will be a problem for him."