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Devils believe Kovalchuk will return

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Superstar forward llya Kovalchuk has to play for the New Jersey Devils once the NHL lockout is officially lifted.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Tuesday that the KHL reaffirmed its intention to honor an agreement with the NHL concerning contracts.

``They would not permit a player who is under a valid and binding NHL SPC (to) continue to play in the KHL once the lockout is officially lifted,'' Daly said in an email to The Associated Press. ``They have confirmed their intention to honor this agreement to us.''

There has been some intrigue this week whether Kovalchuk would leave SKA St. Petersburg to return to the Devils. Some reports in Russia said he was concerned that he would make less money playing in a lockout-shortened NHL season.

Kovalchuk, who signed a 15-year, $100 million contract with New Jersey in 2010, played in a KHL game Tuesday. He told Russian media he was playing to stay in shape pending the end of the lockout.

Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn't worried.

``I have no knowledge of anything other thank him coming back,'' Lamoriello said in a telephone interview.

Jay Grossman, Kovalchuk's agent, did not immediately return a telephone call left by The AP.

NHL owners plan to vote on the new 10-year agreement Wednesday. Players will vote on Thursday and Friday. If both sides ratify the agreement, the league has told teams to be ready to start the season on Jan. 19. The Devils would have to open on the road because an ice show is scheduled at their arena.

About a dozen Devils worked out informally at the team's practice rink at the Prudential Center on Tuesday morning. The workout was closed to the media but a couple of players on the defending Eastern Conference-championship squad stopped their cars to talk to the media and sign autographs.

Those who did felt Kovalchuk, who led the team with 37 goals and 83 points last year and could be named the new captain, would return for the 48-game season.

``I expect him here,'' said defenseman Bryce Salvador, one of the team's NHLPA player representatives. ``Like I said, I don't know, until you officially talk to him or hear. I think now with the KHL, it's kind of bad timing there. They are going into their All-Star Game and stuff like that, so I think that's where you're hearing all that stuff from.''

Defenseman Mark Fayne smiled sheepishly when asked about Kovalchuk. ``I think it's a little better with him here,'' he said.

Defenseman Andy Greene, who was driven to practice by Fayne, thinks things will play out just fine as the club seeks its sixth conference title.

``Obviously, we want him here,'' Greene said. ``He is a big part of the team. I don't know. It's all speculation.''

Salvador was confident the new CBA would be approved by the players, noting it was ``a done deal'' provided the language in the tentative agreement was not changed. He admitted there was some concern about reaching an agreement, noting the 2003-04 season was lost when the two sides could not reach a settlement.

``The 10-year agreement shows both sides want to limit these work stoppages every six or seven years,'' Salvador said. ``I think we have exhausted the last one that can go on like this. I'm glad it's a 10-year deal and we were able to maintain 48 games, and have that integrity. It's something the league was saying, and I agree with it, winning the Stanley Cup that year is really a legitimate thing.''

The last time a lockout shortened the season (1994-95) to 48 games, the Devils won their first Stanley Cup.

New Jersey will return most of their core from last season with the notable exception being forward Zach Parise, the former captain who signed with Minnesota as a free agent.

``It's not like last year when we had a new coach coming in and new systems and everything,'' Greene said of second-year coach Peter DeBoer. ``Everything is pretty defined there. It's one less thing to worry about getting ready for the season.''

Lamoriello said forward Adam Henrique, who had surgery to repair a ligament in his left thumb, is expected to return at the end of the month. He was injured playing with the team's AHL affiliate in Albany, N.Y.

Henrique had 16 goals and 35 assists as a rookie last season. He added five goals and eight assists in the Devils' run to the Stanley Cup finals, including three game-winning goals. His tally in overtime of Game 6 helped secure the Eastern Conference title, as the Devils eliminated the New York Rangers at home.

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