With Kovalchuk safe, Devils must cut salaries

It took 65 days to keep Ilya Kovalchuk a Devil.

Now the hard part begins for Lou Lamoriello.

The Devils general manager must trim $3-6 million in salary cap liability just to start the season, and it’s not going to be easy, or without pain.

With Kovalchuk’s 15-year, $100 million contract approved by the NHL early yesterday morning, tied to an amendment of the collective bargaining agreement clarifying long-term deals, the Devils stand $3 million over the $59.4 million salary cap, with 21 players under contract.

They might, but probably won’t, try to slip by with only 21 players on the roster this season, but short-term injuries and the resultant call-ups could still add another $1-2 million in cap hit. In addition, they’d have to replace any of their cap sacrifices with a player costing at least $500,000.

“Players in training camp could make those decisions themselves,” Lamoriello said. “We have until the first day of the season, that’s all we have to be ready for. We know we have to be below the winter cap. We are below the summer cap.”

The obvious candidates for cap sacrifice are defenseman Bryce Salvador ($2.9 million) and forward Dainius Zubrus ($3.4 million), each a valuable Devil, but each also without no-trade protection. Patrik Elias (no-movement), Brian Rolston, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott, Colin White, Aton Volchenkov, Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg all carry no-trade clauses.

Travis Zajac ($3.9 million) has been the subject of rumors, simply because opponents might be loathe to take on contracts like Zubrus’ when players like Mike Comrie can be had for $500,000.

Lamoriello might have to deal with teams like the Avalanche, who are still below the minimum of $43.4 million in cap hit. The Islanders, Thrashers, Blues, Hurricanes, Coyotes, Panthers, Lightning, Stars, Ducks, Predators and Kings all have $9 million or more in space.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the CBA amendment that accompanied Kovalchuk’s approval is the clause whereby the NHL promises to certify any conforming contract that meets both the old and new guidelines. “Effect” is out, as a basis for rejection.

That means that Kovalchuk’s initial July 19 deal, the one for which the Devils face a fine up to $3 million and the loss of draft picks, would have been registered by the league under the same do*****ents that are now going to penalize New Jersey. The cap hit would have been $7.7 million instead of that deal’s $6 million, and Lamoriello said it wouldn’t have happened.