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Netcrashing: Are monster contracts bad for the NHL?

Jamie Bell, TSN.ca Staff

7/21/2010 1:41:42 PM

While there is certainly something to be said for job security, the notion of a professional athlete remaining in one place for 17 seasons seems ludicrous at this point in time.

It appears as though the NHL agrees with that notion as on Tuesday, the league announced that it had rejected Ilya Kovalchuk's 17-year, $102 million contract with the New Jersey Devils on the grounds that the deal circumvents the NHL's salary cap.

Although it seems incredibly likely that the Devils and Kovalchuk will eventually be able to come up with a solution to their problem, it is clear that the NHL is no longer willing to simply look the other way on enormous multi-year deals made specifically to find the loopholes in the current collective bargaining agreement.

There are very few athletes that have earned the right to be called "franchise players".  Unless you are a Steve Yzerman, a Martin Brodeur, a Joe Sakic or a Nicklas Lidstrom, this title does not apply to you.

Before the deal was put on hold on Tuesday, the Devils organization decided that after a grand total of 32 games (27 in the regular season and five in the playoffs), they are ready to hitch their wagon for the better part of two decades to Kovalchuk, a player with nine post-season contests on his ledger and who saw his shooting percentage and goals-per-game actually decrease once he relocated to the Swamp in February.

What is inarguable is the fact that Kovalchuk was the best player available on the free agent market and that he is an elite-level sniper for a team that has been accused in the past of doing more to prevent goals than trying to actually bulge the twine behind the opposing netminder.

If it had been approved, the 17-year pact would have been the longest contract in NHL history, topping the 15-year deal that the New York Islanders handed oft-injured goaltender Rick DiPietro and the 13-year offer agreed to by two-time Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.  The contract was to include a no-movement clause for the first seven seasons and a no-trade clause for the last nine.

Obviously the NHL's decision to reject the contract changes things considerably as there are now bigger issues at play such as the precedent set last season by the 12-year, $62.8 million deal that Marian Hossa signed with the Chicago Blackhawks.

While both the Blackhawks and Hossa were eventually cleared of any potential wrongdoing, the nature of the deal left a bad taste in their mouths as it appeared that both the team and the player had signed a deal that neither seemed intent on honouring in its entirety.  With Tuesday's decision, it is now clear that the NHL has decided that monster contracts, such as the one that the Devils and Kovalchuk agreed upon, should no longer be allowed.

Ironically, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told the NorthJersey.com earlier in the day that he himself believed that such contracts should be eliminated in the next round of collective bargaining agreement talks. However, he did not believe that there was anything technically wrong with offering a monstrous deal that would see Kovalchuk still hopping over the boards for the Devils when most players would be collecting their pensions.

Lamoriello explained his position in an interview with NorthJersey.com.

"This is within the rules," Lamoriello told NorthJersey.com.  "This is in the CBA. There are precedents that have been set. But I would agree we shouldn't have these. But I'm also saying that because it's legal and this is something that ownership felt comfortable doing for the right reasons."

The NHL does not appear to agree with Lamoriello's notion that the contract was put together for “the right reasons,” as they feel the deal was far too 'front loaded.'

Kovalchuk was set to earn $95 million for the first 10 years of the deal and just $7 million for the final seven years of the deal.  It will be back to the drawing board for both sides on a contract saga that was already far too drawn out before this latest twist.

Assuming that the deal eventually gets done, it may well be the end of the salary cap circumventing era that has become a valuable tool to progressive-thinking NHL general managers.

When attempting to analyze a contract of this size, the total salary number is almost irrelevant despite its enormity.  The 27-year old Kovalchuk was scheduled to earn $102 million over the length of the deal.  When it would expire following the 2026-27 season, Kovalchuk would be 44 years old.  To put that in perspective, newly-hired Devils head coach John MacLean turned 45 this past November.

The number that really counts is the very manageable $6 million that the Devils would pay against the salary cap for a player that they believe has the ability to help return them to past glories.  If Kovalchuk is able to once again reach 50-goal status, then a $6 million cap hit would be a bargain.  In addition, the signing would be a clear signal to Devils fans that the organization is willing to do whatever it takes to win and believes that Kovalchuk is a player that they can build their franchise around.

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, the Russian sharpshooter is undoubtedly a talented goal scorer, however it must be noted that no player has reached the 50-goal plateau in Devils' franchise history.  Brian Gionta came closest when he potted 48 for the 2005-06 Devils. 

On the plus side for Kovalchuk, if the deal is completed of course, is that he will (in theory anyways) be freed from the shackles of the defence "first, second and third" line of thinking of former Devils' bench boss Jacques Lemaire.  New head coach MacLean has spent the majority of his professional career within the Devils organization and has to hope that Kovalchuk can have a similar impact that another noted Russian sniper, Alexander Mogilny, had during his tenure in Jersey.

The truth of the matter is that the Devils have a very small window before Martin Brodeur retires and both Kovalchuk and talented forward Zach Parise are in the prime of their careers.  Considering how busy the Devils have been this summer - signing shut-down defenceman Anton Volchenkov and bringing former Devil Jason Arnott back into the fold - New Jersey is in 'win now' mode and perhaps a massive contract to a proven goal scorer is just the price of doing business in the modern NHL.

Should the 17-year deal eventually be pushed through, both Kovalchuk and the Devils have several options available to them of getting out of their side of the agreement.  After 11 seasons in Newark, Kovalchuk could decide that playing at $750,000 a year is not something that he wants to do at age 38, and could well announce his retirement at that point, saving the Devils little in actual salary, but a significant $6 million hit against the cap. 

The other side of the coin is that the Devils can buy him out at any point or after his no-movement clause expires in seven seasons, can place him on waivers with the intention of sending him to the minors where his salary will not count against the cap.  While that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, the Devils have proved themselves somewhat ruthless in the past, burying players in the minors to ensure that they are able to compete year-after-year while negotiating the cap.

So our question to you in this edition of Netcrashing is the following: "Are monster contracts like Kovalchuk's bad for the NHL?"

Let your opinion be known in our 'Your Call' feature below.