Ilya Kovalchuk Contract Rejection Could Be Tip of Iceberg
Lou Lamoriello and the Devils might not be humored, but there are around a half-dozen NHL players who are laughing now. They are the players who already received big-money, front-loaded contracts that take them close to or past age 40. The league has expressed displeasure with these deals, but only Tuesday did they put those feelings to action.
Tuesday night, reports surfaced that the NHL had rejected forward Ilya Kovalchuk's 17-year, $102 million contract with New Jersey, on the grounds that it circumvents the salary cap. While the future is uncertain, there is no question about how we arrived at this point.
The arguments against Kovalchuk's deal are compelling. It takes him to the age of 44, and not even Ilya's mother believes he will be an active NHL player that long. Even Lamoriello himself expressed skepticism about long deals like this, after all, and he is the general manager responsible for its existence. The deal is heavily front-loaded, to the point where Kovalchuk will earn more money in one season ($11.5 million) than he will in the last seven years combined.
As the reports on the rejection state, this is a pretty blatant circumvention of the rules. It's something the NHL couldn't tolerate, especially because Lamoriello is one of the people who helped craft the current rules.
Of course, we all know the NHL has been paying for the Stanley Cup-sized loophole in the collective bargaining agreement for a while now. Instead of using a player's salary as their cap number, the league decided to allow teams to front- or back-load deals with little penalty. The average annual value of the deal was what set a player's cap figure.
In other words, if a player signs a two-year, $20 million contract, it doesn't matter if his salaries for the two years are $15 million and $5 million. The cap number for each season is $10 million.
Since this loophole was discovered, it's been increasingly abused. If the Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg deals with the Red Wings are subtly circumventing the cap, the Kovalchuk contract makes it blatantly obvious.
Detroit signed both those players to double-digit year deals that are quite cap-friendly. Both will be 40 when the deals expire, and the contracts are front-loaded. Franzen will make just $4 million the last three years of his deal, while Zetterberg will make $5.35 million.
Besides Kovalchuk, the biggest offender in this recent trend may be Vancouver. Their deal with goalie Roberto Luongo won't expire until he is 43. While he will make $10 million this season and average just over $6 million for the next seven years, Luongo will only make $7 million over the last four years of his deal.
Was it mentioned that Luongo's deal goes until he is 43 years old? Yes, goalies have been known to play into their 40s, but should we really be assuming that Luongo will last through this contract?
(Chris Pronger's deal with the Flyers is pretty bad, too. His last two years carry him to age 42, and he will make a paltry $525,000 each season.)
Deals to Chicago forward Marian Hossa and Boston's Marc Savard are similar in their long-term and front-loaded nature. They all circumvent the salary cap, but none of them are as crazy as New Jersey's pact with Kovalchuk.
The last six years of Kovalchuk's rejected deal call for him to make a total of $3.5 million. Since Kovalchuk's desire to become a $100 million man wasn't well-hidden, it seems this deal was done in a way that Kovalchuk could get the dollar amount he wanted, while the Devils got the cap hit they wanted.
If Kovalchuk really does want that $100 million total, he is going to be in trouble. Simple math tells you that if you keep the $102 million total, but lop the final six years of the deal off, you're looking at the cap hit going from $6 million to over $9 million. That's quite a hit.
Will Lamoriello and ownership be willing to drive up the cap hit in order to make the deal acceptable in the league's eyes? Will Kovalchuk back off his monetary goal? If the sides reach a stalemate, what's next in this seemingly never-ending free agent saga?
Devils fans and NHL critics will rip the league for getting involved. After all, this has clearly been a problem for some time, and the league has continually turned the other cheek.
But let's face reality. The NHL had to do something, as this problem wasn't going to rectify itself. Further abuses of the system were likely, and while the NHL's decision to step in should have far-reaching consequences, it is hard to argue it wasn't a necessary move.
Of course, we still don't know where the line is.
How does Kovalchuk's contract cross that line when compared to Luongo, Hossa, and others? What happens when the next long-term deal is signed? How will the NHL address this situation so the teams know where the line is?
The league has a lot of questions to answer as we move forward. They need to be upfront and make sure everyone understands the rules. If they fail to do that, we will travel down this road again.