Ilya Kovalchuk was the No. 1 free agent in the NHL this summer. Since July 1, hockey fans have been waiting for Kovy to sign a deal. After flirtations with the Kings and Islanders, the Russian sniper signed a mega-deal with the New Jersey Devils on Monday.
Kovalchuk signed a 17-year $102 million contract. Let that sink in: seventeen years, one hundred and two million dollars.
The deal immediately raised some eyebrows for both its length and structure. Kovalchuk would be signed until he was 44-years-old and the last five years of the deal, he would be paid the league minimum. The way the NHL salary cap works, a players cap hit is based on his average annual value. When a player retires, his contract comes off the book. By going to 17 years, it's pretty obvious what the Devils were trying to do with the deal — stretch it out as far as possible to lower his cap hit.
NHL players don't often play past age 40. For every Chris Chelios who played until his mid-40s, there are hundreds of others who have hung up the skates well before 40. Tuesday saw the Devils introduce Kovalchuk at a press conference. Tuesday also saw the league come down hard on the Devil and reject the contract.
Fans around the league rejoiced. Since the new CBA began, teams have been exploiting the long-term contract loophole to drive down annual salaries. Teams across the league — Detroit, Chicago, Tampa Bay, etc. — have used long-term deals to circumvent the salary cap. Finally, the league said enough is enough and put an end to the madness.
Too little, too late.
The NHL didn't close the loophole; instead, it just created a new problem. After ignoring shady cap-friendly deals for too long, why did the league decide that this deal was the one that broke the rules? Was it the length? Sure 17 years is a long time, but Kovalchuk is younger than most mega-deal signers.
Last summer, the Chicago Blackhawks singed 30-year old Marian Hossa to a 12-year $62.8 million contract. The deal breaks down like this: "In 2017-18 and 2018-19, Hossa will make $1 million and in the final two years of the deal, he will make just $750,000 each year. The NHL approved this deal.
So with the Hossa deal, he has four seasons where he is getting paid significantly less than the average value of the contract and the terms extend into his 40s. The NHL saw nothing wrong with this, but something wrong Kovalchuk.
Again, Kovalchuck's last five years (his age 39 to age 44 seasons) he will be getting paid very little, even if he plays. Hossa's last four years (his age 38 to age 42 seasons) he will be getting paid very little, even if he plays.
If Kovalchuk were to sign a new 15-year, $90 million contract, would the league have a problem with that? He'd only be 42 at the end.
Why the two different rules? Why let one (of many) shady deals slide, but decide now to step in? The NHL had a problem all along with this loophole, but waited years to address it. In finally doing so, they didn't get it right. Instead, they now have a fight with the NHL Players Association.
The NHLPA and the NHL owners aren't the best of friends. In 2004-05, the league was locked out for an entire season. Labor strife is common. Now Bettman and the league have gone after the NHLPA by saying that one of their players can't make the money a team agreed to pay him. Presumably, the NHLPA will appeal the rejection. The two sides will engage in a lengthy debate that will just bring bad PR and bad blood between the two sides. Super.
Those in favor of the rejection basically have the same viewpoint: Something needed to be done. Why wasn't something done last year? Or the year before that? Why didn't the league reject the first cap-circumventing deal?
It's a matter of consistency. The NHL has consistently let the contracts go through. The Kovie deal isn't that much different. It too should go through. If the league has had enough, why not do something proactive instead of reactive? On the Forecheck has some solutions — rules — to prevent deals like Kovalchuk's from ever being printed on paper.
The NHL needs to crack down on these silly contracts. The salary cap was put in place to keep teams, like the Blues, who don't have deep pockets anymore, on a level playing field. If the rich are going to use legal means to cheat the system, the league must put a stop to it — but rejecting one deal isn't the answer. The answer is to put rules in place. Stop the long-term deals.
Kovalchuk's signing was big news for the league. The rejection was also big news, but it made the league look bad. If the NHL wants to regain credibility, it should allow the Kovalchuk contract and immediately begin negotiations with the NHLPA about amending the CBA.
Otherwise, the league has a set a standard that different teams get to play by different rules, and that's not good for the league.