On Tuesday night, the NHL rejected the 17-year contract that Ilya Kovalchuk signed with the New Jersey Devils, citing it is a circumvention of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Yet the Russian star forward is not the first free agent to sign a big front-loaded lifetime contract with little expectation that that the player would actually play until the final season. Such deals have become common, so is it possible that the NHL has simply had enough, thus making an example of Kovalchuk?
Kovalchuk's deal was scheduled to pay him US$102-million and would have been the largest in NHL history. The contract, which has a US$6-million cap hit, is structured so that the 27-year-old would make US$95-million in the first 10 years and just US$7-million over the final seven seasons. Kovalchuk would be 44 years old when his contract expires and a real bargain during those twilight years if he plays that long. But if he retires before reaching that point, the remaining amount owing to him would not count against the salary cap.
"We are extremely disappointed that the NHL has decided to reject the contract of Ilya Kovalchuk," said Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. "The contract complies with the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement."
Other players have signed similar front-heavy contracts that bend the parameters of the collective bargaining agreement. Roberto Luongo has a 12-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks worth US$63-million that will expire when the goalie is 43. Henrik Zetterberg and the Detroit Red Wings have a 12-year contract that has him earning US$67.65-million in the first nine seasons, but only US$5.35-million in the final three. Johan Franzen's 11-year deal with the Wings is good until he's 40 and pays him US$39.5-million in the first eight seasons, but only US$4-million in the last three. Goalie Rick DiPietro got a 15-year deal from the New York Islanders, and two-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin has a 13-year pact with the Washington Capitals. Kovalchuk's deal topped all of those.
So why did Kovalchuk's contract sound alarm bells and cause the NHL to step in and call this one a violation of the CBA? Has Gary Bettman seen enough of the many long-term, front-loaded deals being signed by franchise players? Was the league justified in rejecting this one?