Devils Were an Easy Target for Gary Bettman, NHL
Bettman came down heavy on the New Jersey Devils yesterday when he slapped them with a $3 million fine and the loss of two high draft picks as punishment for originally offering Ilya Kovalchuk a 17-year, $102 million contract.
An arbitrator subsequently ruled the offer was a circumvention of the salary cap, opening the door for Bettman to dole out the punishment, which the Devils can appeal to the NHL's Board of Governors.
The chance of success with the lords of the boards is slim, however.
Taking on the Devils was an easy fight for Bettman and it came after the commissioner passed on four previous chances to mix it up with several other teams over the so-called retirement contracts.
At the time of Kovalchuk's original signing, the cap hit was considered the average annual value of a contract.
But a loophole was discovered in which teams could front-load a contract and have several years of low salaries at the end to decrease the cap hit.
Other teams had used this method and they didn't even have their wrists slapped.
Chicago's 12-year deal with Marian Hossa was front-loaded, and the same applies to the long-term deals with Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, Boston's Marc Savard and Philadelphia's Chris Pronger. There were other long-term deals the NHL didn't like but approved, such as the 12-year, $73 million pact with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg.
The funny thing is the NHL took more than a year to start investigating the deals with Savard, Hossa and Pronger.
Boston GM Peter Chierelli was questioned about the Savard contract after the Devils agreed to the original deal with Kovalchuk. It makes you wonder what they were doing in New York.
It's easy to see why the NHL was so hesitant to act in the previous cases. Could you imagine the mess that would have been created if Bettman stuck his nose in Chicago's deal with Hossa after the slick Slovak helped power the Blackhawks to their Stanley Cup dream season?
It was good for Bettman that the NHLPA isn't as strong as it used to be, otherwise he would've faced much more fierce resistance in his quest to close the salary loophole.
When Bettman struck a deal with the NHLPA to amend the CBA he avoided antagonizing Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who just happens to be the chairman of the NHL board of governors.
He also avoided scrapping with Philadelphia owner Ed Snider, who is one of Bettman's key governors. And he avoided butting heads with Detroit owner Mike Illitch.
But New Jersey owner Jeff Vanderbeek was an easy target. The buzz in the hockey world is that the Kovalchuk contract was the work of the owner, and not the financially prudent general manager of the Devils, Lou Lamoriello.
The NHL reportedly warned the Devils not to back-load the Kovalchuk deal. When they went ahead and did it anyway, the team walked straight into Bettman's cross-hairs.
The Devils were apparently the last straw.
There is a train of thought that what Bettman did was good for the game, that by closing the loophole he made more money available for depth players.
While that is true, you have to wonder why Bettman didn't act earlier. Was it because he didn't want to take on the heavyweight governors?
The difference between a 17-year, $102 million deal and a 15-year, $100 million deal is miniscule in the grand scheme of things. The revised deal will pay Kovalchuk $1 million per season in the 11th, 12th and 13th years, and $3 million in the 14th season and $4 million in the final year when he won't be around and a buyout will have already been completed.
Didn't anyone in New York notice that Zetterberg will make $1 million per season in his last two years? Isn't that a cap circumvention?
"We disagree with the decision," Lamoriello said in a statement after the NHL announced the fine and other sanctions. "We acted in good faith and did nothing wrong."
They did nothing wrong except be in the wrong place at the wrong time.