Today, "The Ilya Kovalchuk Saga" finally came to an end, with the league approving his newly submitted 15-year, $100 million contract. Instead of relief or excitement, I only felt a sense of frustration. I realized that, throughout this entire process, there has been gross mismanagement on both sides, and it’s led to a long summer of rampant speculation and egg-faced officials. In the end, its the fans that have suffered from these negotiations, and the league has taken a credibility hit.
Let’s start from the top, shall we? Before free agency began on July 1, talk about Kovalchuk’s contract demands began to spread. Many media outlets reported that Kovalchuk wanted to make $100 million on his next contract, a number few teams seemed eager to match. Only two major suitors presented themselves in “The Kovalchuk Sweepstakes” – the Los Angeles Kings and the Devils. The Kings flew Kovalchuk and his wife out to L.A., where they wined and dined the left-winger. Eventually, the Kings put an offer on the table – 15-years, $80 million. It was a lucrative offer, but one Kovalchuk would ultimately leave on the table.
The only team willing to match the $100 million offer was the Devils. New Jersey offered Kovalchuk a monster contract – 17-years, $102 million – to keep him in a Devils’ sweater. Kovalchuk agreed, and both sides seemed to get what they wanted. Little did we know that this contract would begin “The Kovalchuk Saga.”
The proposed 17-year contract had to pass through two channels – the NHLPA and the NHL. The NHLPA accepted the contract, leaving the final hurdle with the league. For the past few years, the league has been questioning the validity of these long-term, front-loaded contracts. Deals to Marian Hossa and Roberto Luongo, to name a few, helped teams keep star talent for a reasonable cap hit per season. Instead of towing the line, the Devils went to extremes with their 17-year contract, dropping Kovalchuk’s average salary in the final six years to under $1 million. That would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The league rejected the contract, making it null and void. It would now be up to Kovalchuk and the NHLPA to decide the next course of action.
The NHLPA decided to file a grievance on behalf of Kovalchuk. Both the league and the players’ association found a systems arbitrator, Richard Bloch, to decide the case. On August 9, Bloch made his decision, upholding the league’s rejection of the contract. Kovalchuk became an unrestricted free-agent, and the Devils had to go back to the drawing board.
Fast forward to the end of August. After weeks of negotiations with Kovalchuk and the league office, the Devils submitted yet another contract, a 15-year, $100 million deal. The Devils seemed to correct some of the problems on the back-end of the contract, eliminating the possibility of “cap circumvention.” The league had until Wednesday at 5 p.m. to decide whether to accept or reject the contract.
But what would “The Kovalchuk Saga” be without another plot twist. The league and players’ association mutually agreed to extend a deadline for a decision to today. No one knows the real reason why, but one thing shone through – someone, somewhere, has mismanaged this situation.
This situation has grown from interesting to ridiculous, and the blame needs to spread across all parties. The Devils need to accept blame for submitting such an extreme and outlandish contract to begin this drama. General manager Lou Lamoriello could not have expected that contract to pass, even if it met the spirit of the CBA, as he argued. He had to know that the contract would be rejected, and yet he still submitted the deal.
While the Devils should take blame, most of this mismanagement falls on the shoulders of the league and the players’ association. The NHL, after rejecting the first deal, gave the Devils and Kovalchuk an opportunity to talk about the potential structure of a new deal with league officials. From several reports, the Devils and Kovalchuk took that opportunity and approached the league with concepts. Why didn’t the league set an outline of what they thought was acceptable or not during these meetings? It could have easily helped eliminate problems or questions with this deal. Instead of forcing amendments to the CBA, the league could have let the Devils know what their expectations were, giving New Jersey a rough outline of a suitable contract. Would they follow it? Who knows. But at least it’s there as a reference.
The NHLPA also shares most of the blame. I can understand the willingness on Wednesday to extend the deadline. I’m sure that arbitration cases aren’t exciting, and they’re most likely time consuming. But, in order to pass the deal, we’ve come to learn that the players’ association agreed to amendments to the CBA dealing with long-term contracts. League officials want to clarify and set new boundaries for these contracts. And, for some reason, the NHLPA is entertaining these talks. That alone boggles my mind. The players’ association shouldn’t bow to the wishes of owners, who want clarity on these contracts but don’t feel like waiting until the next set of negotiations. TSN has the proposed amendments, and while they aren't anything crazy, they're still concessions. Instead of standing up for itself, it shrunk in the face of league officials, willing to bargain at the potential cost of having yet another Kovalchuk contract denied.
I understand the league’s reluctance to continue to allow these long-term deals. Clearly, teams are able to get cute with the cap. I would agree that these deals need to be reviewed. But the acceptance or denial of this Kovalchuk contract shouldn’t depend on the amendment of new rules governing long-term contracts. No other sports organization would attempt this. The NFL hasn’t revamped its rookie pay scale just to approve the contract of Sam Bradford. The MLB didn’t institute a salary cap when Alex Rodriguez signed his monster contract four years ago. The NBA didn’t inform teams that signing three max-deal players would be illegal to allow the Heat to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh. But this is the NHL, and we all know how the NHL braintrust fails time and time again.
Either way you slice it, this situation is bad. No one will come out of this squeaky clean. The league looks foolish and petty, hinting that the NHLPA meet CBA amendments to pass the contract. The NHLPA has lost its bargaining chip, succumbing to the league’s request to review and possibly institute new rules against these deals. The Devils and Kovalchuk, dragged into the middle of a CBA battle, look ridiculous. The situation reeks of gross mismanagement by several parties. Unfortunately, the fans are the ones left high and dry, frustrated and angry at the lack of a resolution in the case.
Kovalchuk Photo Credit: Jennifer Brown/The Star Ledger
Jay Vanderbeek Photo Credit: Mel Evans/AP Photo
Gary Bettman Photo Credit: Richard Lam/Canadian Press