The Devils made the biggest splash of the off-season, re-signing unrestricted free agent left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk to the longest contract in NHL history. The signing ends a long period of anticipation throughout the league, but brings to light several potential issues for the Devils going forward. While I’m excited to have one of the game’s best scorers don the red, white and black, the signing also raises questions which need to be answered.
Clearly, the biggest news comes from the terms of the contract. Kovalchuk will make $102 million over 17 years, with an annual cap hit of $6 million. The deal has already been approved by the NHL Players Association, and there’s no reason to believe the NHL will deny the contract. The deal won’t be the richest in NHL history (that honor belongs to Alex Ovechkin), but it will certainly put pressure on Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk, whether he wants it or not, will now have immense scrutiny on his every game. Scott Burnside of ESPN already took the first shots, pointing out Kovalchuk’s lack of success in the playoffs. These criticisms will continue to grow if Kovalchuk doesn’t live up to the now immense expectations. By signing for 17 years, Kovalchuk committed the prime of his career to the Devils, who don’t have many big scorers and don’t usually play an “offensive” game.
But I think we saw some flashes of Kovalchuk’s ability and potential with the team last year. He averaged a point per game during the season, matching Zach Parise in that category. The winger also played a surprisingly solid defensive game, as explained in this piece I wrote exactly one month ago. While he will need to live up to huge expectations, I believe Kovalchuk already proved some of his worth to the organization. With players expecting John MacLean to institute a more aggressive system, I think we’ll see Kovalchuk continue to be an offensive force. Playing to the expectations of that contract should keep him motivated.
The Long-Term Financial Impact
Kovalchuk’s cap hit each season will only be $6 million, which is a bargain for a great offensive player. But taking a look at the overall contract breakdown brings some concerns.
Kovalchuk’s contract breakdown:
2010-11: $6 Million
2011-12: $6 Million
2012-13: $11.5 Million
2013-14: $11.5 Million
2014-15: $11.5 Million
2015-16: $11.5 Million
2016-17: $11.5 Million (no-movement clause ends on June 30, 2017)
2017-18: $10.5 Million
2018-19: $8.5 Million (no-trade clause begins on July 1, 2018)
2019-20: $6.5 Million
2020-21: $3.5 Million
The back-end of the deal is clearly favorable to the Devils. In those last five years, Kovalchuk’s contract will be minimal. But it’s the next few years which worry me. Remember, Parise will become a restricted free agent next summer, and this contract will probably be used as a measuring stick for what Parise should make. General manager Lou Lamoriello is good at getting a little discount from players, but I’m sure that Parise will demand upwards of $90 million. Even though Travis Zajac has three years left on his deal, he’ll probably demand a few more million when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Even Martin Brodeur will need to be resigned in the coming years. These players are the cornerstones of the franchise, and the Devils will need to give them raises while being responsible for the bulk of Kovalchuk’s contract.
Overall, I worry that Kovalchuk’s contract may tie up the Devils for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to see Zajac or Parise walk away from the team because Lamoriello doesn’t have the money to sign either player. While this probably wouldn’t happen, it’ll be interesting to see the long-term financial impact of his signing.
Continue reading after the jump for more analysis on the trade.