Ilya Kovalchuk's new deal with the New Jersey Devils is an incredible 17-year pact that wll keep the goal-scoring machine in the red and black until his 44th birthday. It's an unheard of length, even in the current NHL, where contracts that reach double-digit years are becoming quite common.
The reasoning for a team wanting to sign a player to such a deal is quite simple: by agreeing to a longer contract, it's possible for a team to frontload it (the most money being paid in the first years) which then lowers the annual salary cap hit (total dollars divided by total years). There's also a loophole in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that says if a player signs a contract before he turns 35, his cap hit comes off the books when (or if) he retires (also known as the 35-and-over rule).
A good example would be the 12-year deal the Detroit Red Wings signed Henrik Zetterberg to last season.
Here's a quick rundown of similar deals that have been signed over the past decade (in chronological order). The chart below shows the player, team, length of the contract, the total dollar amount, the salary cap hit, and the age each player was when the contract was signed. Figures from CapGeek.com:
( *Cap didn't exist when Yashin signed his contract)
-- The New York Islanders were the team that got this party started, signing Yashin (after giving up Zdeno Chara and a draft pick, No. 2 overall, that turned out to be Jason Spezza) and DiPietro to 10-and 15-year deals respectively. Needless to say, they're batting 0-for-2 at the moment. Yashin played five seasons with the Islanders (averaging 58 points) before having his contract bought out (they're still paying him today). DiPietro, meanwhile, is perhaps the poster child for everything that can potentially go wrong with such a lengthy contract, as his promising career has been derailed by injuries. It's also the exact opposite of the way the goalie market is playing out this offseason.
Over the past two seasons he's played just 13 games for New York, winning only three.
-- The contract that has the potential to be the best investment? How about Nicklas Backstrom with the Washington Capitals. He's still young enough, and good enough, that it shouldn't be that much of a risk (he'll only be 32 when it expires, and he's already one of the best players in the league), and it's already looking like an absolute steal when it comes to value. And, barring injury, he's all but guaranteed to continue to improve, making it an even bigger win for the Capitals.
-- The only players on the list that were signed as a free agent were Hossa with the Chicago Blackhawks and Kovalchuk with the Devils. Even though Kovalchuk re-signed with his previous team, he was still on the open market and talking to other teams. The others were already with the team when signed. Eight of the players were originally drafted by the team that signed them (Luongo was drafted by the Islanders; Hossa and Yashin were both drafted by Ottawa).
-- The obvious question now becomes how (or if) the NHL will attempt to close the loophole that allows teams to hand out these mega-deals. As Barry Petchesky at Deadspin pointed out on Monday, the NHL has already investigated the contracts signed by Hossa (who was 30 at the time of his signing) and Chris Pronger (34 when he signed a seven-year deal last offseason) for possible circumventions of the cap (such as a potential pre-determined agreement to retire at a certain point, thus eliminating the cap hit from the books).
The NBA, by comparison, has a maximum length of six years on contracts. The biggest change that may be needed probably isn't a maximum length (if a team wants to risk 15 years, I say let it), but the elimination of the 35-and-over rule (the cap hit would stay on the book no matter how young or old the player was when the contract was signed) that has helped to create this monster.