Arbitrator Richard Bloch, after two days of hearings last week, sided with the NHL in its rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk’s 17-year $102 million contract signed with the New Jersey Devils in July. Bloch ruled that the contract was designed to avoid the league’s salary cap. The contract was seen to be “front-loaded,” meaning that Kovalchuk would have received $98.5 million over the first 11 seasons, but then get a salary of less than one million dollars a year for the last six years of the deal.
The Russian left winger had filed a grievance against the NHL when it rejected the contract, so obviously he wanted the deal. In the real world, who would not want it? Where could you sit down and get a contract for 17 years of employment? Kovalchuk seemed to have no concerns about the structure of this deal, and the Devils seemed more than happy with it, but the league is more worried about its collective bargaining agreement and the salary cap issues.
As for now, Kovalchuk becomes an unrestricted free agent, which means he can talk to other teams besides the Devils. But as of last night, team president Lou Lamoriello indicated that negotiations were underway to work out a new contract with a talented player that “meets with the principles in arbitrator Bloch’s award and the NHL’s approval.”
My only question is this: why would the Devils even attempt to create such a deal, knowing the NHL’s rules and regulations would thwart their plans? I can understand why the league rejected it because of its ramifications for future deals with other teams and players, but it does seem strange that it ever got that far.
Now the Devils could be hit with a fine, and Kovalchuk might also be hit with one by the NHL. One has to wonder if this whole thing is detrimental to the sport, since it is preventing two willing parties from sealing a deal they both apparently want. Hockey players are not an oppressed group suffering under despotic owners, and even if Kovalchuk (now 27) would be too old to play in those last years of the contract, is this necessarily such a bad thing?
It will be interesting to see if the Devils and Kovalchuk can work out a new deal and what it will entail. Wouldn’t it be something if Kovalchuk took his hockey stick elsewhere though, maybe even back to Russia where apparently a deal has been offered? It would be fitting if in the end, something more than money was the deciding factor.