Ilya Kovalchuk has no regrets.

Sure, he got his money when he signed a a 15-year contract with the Devils last summer for $100 million. But he also got another season that ended without a trip to the playoffs.

Still, he does not regret his decision.

"No. Not at all," Kovalchuk told me today. "This season is going to make us stronger. I think we became closer to each other as a team. When you go through a lot, you start to share more with each other. It builds character. I think we'll be good next year. We have a lot of young guys who will be in the second year of their career."

Of course, they thought the same thing when this season started. But it never worked out with rookie coach John MacLean, who was fired on Dec. 23 with a 9-22-2 record.

The decision on whether or not Jacques Lemaire returns next season looms large in the Devils' immediate future. Not surprisingly, Kovalchuk wants him back.

"Yes. I think he's really good," Kovalchuk said of Lemaire. "He's very experienced. He knows how to use guys to be successful. As soon as we started to stick to his game plan we started to win.

"Whoever becomes our coach will be important. Look at this year. I'm not saying who is good or who is bad, but I think (Lemaire) makes a big difference. The start of the season is important. It seems like everybody thinks, 'We'll be OK later,' but it's very important right from the beginning."