- Associated Press - Monday, July 19, 2010

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Unlike the NBA’s LeBron James, the biggest prize on the NHL free agent market isn’t moving.

Ilya Kovalchuk is staying with the New Jersey Devils, agreeing to a staggering 17-year, $102 million deal with the team.

Kovalchuk’s agent and the team announced on Monday that the high-scoring left wing has agreed to stay with New Jersey, ending weeks of speculation where the league’s leading goal scorer since 2001 would be skating next season.

“This was a long arduous process that has taken frankly a little longer than I thought,” agent Jay Grossman said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “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 $6 million _ the average amount per season. However, Kovalchuk will remain on the books through the 2026-27 season.

Kovalchuk will earn $6 million each of the next two seasons, $11.5 million for the following five seasons, $10.5 million in the 2017-18 season, $8.5 million for the 2018-19 season, $6.5 million in 2019-20, $3.5 million in 2020-21, $750,000 the following season, and $550,000 for the final five years of the unprecedented deal.

The Los Angeles Kings, New York Islanders, Devils and SKA St. Petersburg of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League talked with Kovalchuk after free agency started on July 1.

The final decision came down to the Kings and the three-time Stanley Cup champion Devils, who haven’t won a title since 2003.

Grossman refused to say that Kovalchuk decided to stay because he felt the Devils had a better chance to win the Cup again.

“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.”

Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, and coach John MacLean didn’t immediately return telephone messages seeking comment.

James disappointed Cleveland Cavaliers’ fans earlier this month when he signed with the Miami Heat for a chance to chase an NBA title with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

The Devils‘ only major loss in free agency was defenseman Paul Martin, who went to the Atlantic Division-rival Pittsburgh Penguins.

The 27-year-old Kovalchuk was traded to the Devils by Atlanta in February after rejecting a 12-year, $101 million extension offered by the Thrashers.

Kovalchuk (KOH’-vul-chuck) had 41 goals and 44 assists last season when he earned $7.5 million. He posted only 10 goals and 17 assists with the Devils.

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