Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Did Kovalchuk Sign a Lifetime Pact with the Devils?

By: Tim Brennan

For the past three and a half weeks, we have all been wondering where Ilya Kovalchuk, the most sought after commodity on the free agent market, would call home. Despite numerous offers from the New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings and Russia, Kovalchuk remained at large and it appeared as if this soap opera would never end. The Devils put a stop to all the fuss by signing the two time 50 goal man to a tremendous and controversial 17 year, $102 million deal on Monday, keeping the Russian sniper in New Jersey until the age of 44.


That's exactly the same reaction that rang through not only the NHL, but also the sports world. You got to be wondering, "Why on earth would the Devils, and especially Lou Lamoriello, make such a ridiculous offer?" and the answer only lies with the Devils management. As outlandish and concerning as this contract may be, it's certainly not the first of its kind. Many of you remember the first career length contract being handed out a few years back to New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro, when he signed on for 15 years, at the time becoming the longest contract in NHL history. DiPietro's injuries have limited his amount of starts, with only 13 appearances in the last two seasons. However, Kovalchuk differs from DiPietro due to the fact that Kovalchuk isn't a goalie, who end up playing less seasons than a forward or defenseman would, plus he isn't the franchise's cornerstone like DiPietro was sought out to be.

But this brings up an interesting question: Why would the Devils give Kovalchuk the longest contract in the history of the National Hockey League if he isn't, in fact, the team's top player?

Kovalchuk's talent level alone is tops in the NHL, but given the fact that he has limited experience in the post season, which is when big contracts count, and doesn't play a team style it's strange that this deal was struck. Maybe Lamoriello just didn't want anyone else to pick him up so he offered something that no one else could.

The Devils ran into a bit of a snag though upon striking this agreement... the NHL decided to reject it.

The NHL took suit against the Kovalchuk "lifetime pact" due to violations with the league's salary cap policy. Reports surfaced that the Devils had front-loaded Kovalchuk's contract to give him the majority of the money prior to the final five years. As it breaks down, Kovalchuk would earn $6 million each of the first two seasons, $11.5 million each of the next five seasons, a season of $10.5 million followed by a season each of $8.5, $6.5, $3.5 million and $750,000 until the final five seasons which come in at $550,000 per year. In other words, Kovalchuk would have earned $98.5 million in the first 11 years of the deal, allowing him to retire during the final six seasons and with this contract, the Devils lowered their cap hit to $6 million a season.

So it looks like the NHL finally stepped in on one of these "long term front-loaded hope you retire before it's over" contracts. They certainly didn't take offense when last off-season two deals of the same caliber were struck: Chris Pronger, 35, signed a contract extension upon coming to Philadelphia in a trade at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Pronger's seven year deal guaranteed him $7.6 million each of the first two years, $7.2 million in 2012-13, $7 million in 2013-14 before an average of $1.83 million per season the last 3 years. Marian Hossa signed a 12 year, $62.8 million pact with Chicago, allowing him to make $7.9 million per year through the 2015-16 season before his salary drops. By the time his deal expires, Hossa will be 42 years old.

Based on the conditions, an arbitrator will look into the NHL's rejection of Kovalchuk's contract and if the arbitrator agrees with the NHL, Kovalchuk's contract will be void, making him a unrestricted free agent again.

So did Kovalchuk really sign a 17 year deal to stay in New Jersey or didn't he? Did he do it for the money or for the security of playing for a team that is a possible contender? Whatever the case may be, the Devils made history by offering the longest term contract in history of professional sports and might have brought an end to the controversial front-loaded long term contract.

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