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Is this a legacy-maker … or breaker?

7/19/2010 - NHL

Star winger Ilya Kovalchuk turned down multiple one-year offers that would have paid him more than $10 million -- the maximum allowed under the salary cap.

He turned down a lucrative contract offer from the Kontinental Hockey League and the chance to be the centerpiece of the Russian national team in the years leading up to the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014.

All for life in Newark, N.J. Seriously.

You can already hear the snickers and jokes being whispered around the NHL in the wake of Monday's announcement that Kovalchuk had ended weeks of speculation by signing the longest contract in NHL history, a 17-year deal with the New Jersey Devils that sources say will pay the forward just north of $100 million.

Some will immediately draw a line between the Kovalchuk deal and the 15-year contract that made netminder Rick DiPietro and the New York Islanders the butt of jokes around the sporting world. Too much. Too long. Those were the prevailing comments in the wake of the much-anticipated signing.

But how much is too much for a player like Kovalchuk? How long is too long? This isn't the cartoonish Islanders compounding the error by trading away Roberto Luongo so they could draft DiPietro and sign him to the longest deal in NHL history at the time.

Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello is, by almost every measuring stick, one of the game's great team-builders. He took a forgotten waif of an organization and built it into a perennial Cup contender. His Devils won championships in 1995, 2000 and 2003. His teams have missed the playoffs just once in the past 20 NHL postseasons.

Still, the post-lockout NHL has not been kind to the boys from Newark. Those Devils Cup winners were mostly built from within: Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, Scott Gomez, John Madden, Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias were all homegrown players, all key parts of those championship seasons. Players were brought in from the outside to complement the Devils' core -- missing pieces, not centerpieces.

Now that dynamic has been turned on its head.

Players have fled New Jersey at their first opportunity. Madden won a Cup in Chicago this spring. Gomez was part of a Montreal club that went to the Eastern Conference finals. Niedermayer led Anaheim to a Cup in the second season after the lockout. Free-agent defenseman Paul Martin signed with Pittsburgh last month rather than return to Lamoriello's fold.

The Devils, meanwhile, have listed badly. While they have made the playoffs in each of the five post-lockout seasons, they no longer strike fear in the hearts of opposing teams. They have won just two playoff series since the lockout and have not advanced beyond the second round. When they went meekly in five games against Philadelphia in the first round this past April, the Devils were one-and-done in the postseason for the third straight year.

A franchise in decline? All signs point to that. Still, no one can accuse Lamoriello of standing idly by while the team drifts into decay.

When Jacques Lemaire walked away from the coaching job at the end of the playoffs, Lamoriello promoted well-liked former Devil John MacLean, who has promised to play a more exciting, up-tempo style of hockey. Lamoriello filled the hole left by Martin's departure by signing highly coveted shot-blocking specialist Anton Volchenkov and underappreciated Henrik Tallinder to shore up the blue line. He repatriated Jason Arnott, the man who scored the Cup-winning goal in 2000, from Nashville.

All of that was window dressing compared to what Lamoriello pulled off Monday. The Kovalchuk deal is a legacy maker. Or a legacy breaker. There will be no shades of gray with this one. With a manageable cap hit somewhere around $6 million annually, Kovalchuk becomes a bargain if he continues to produce at the rate he has shown he's capable of, say 40-50 goals and 85-95 points per season.

How many players in the NHL can you point to that will deliver those goods year in, year out? Sidney Crosby. Alex Ovechkin. Who else? But is that enough?

Critics will point to the fact Kovalchuk has played in just nine NHL playoff games but skated off the ice with a playoff win just once. One playoff win in eight NHL seasons. Lamoriello has wagered more than $100 million that Kovalchuk is the kind of player who can string 16 playoff wins together -- not during the length of this contract, but in one spring. It's quite a wager, no?

The risks weren't all taken by the Devils. Kovalchuk has essentially wagered the rest of his career on Lamoriello building a team around him that will be capable of putting together 16 playoff wins -- if not, then that team has to at least be a playoff threat.

Quite a wager, too, no?

Sources told ESPN.com that Kovalchuk turned down a long-term deal from the Los Angeles Kings that would have paid him $80 million over 15 years. The Kings are a sexy, young team with a huge upside, but Kovalchuk committed to a team that offered him more money and lifelong security.

If you're a cynic, you might suggest Kovalchuk took the easy way out, signing a deal that (barring a buyout) precludes him from ever having to negotiate another NHL deal. Who among us wouldn't want that kind of security? But does it naturally follow that such a deal blunts the will to win, the will to compete every night? Some GMs would say yes, but it doesn't stop them from handing out career-length contracts as a way of keeping top assets or luring top free agents.

The short history of these kinds of deals isn't pretty. The Islanders are stuck with a broken-down DiPietro for more than a decade. Brian Campbell signed an eight-year deal with Chicago, and he's now their fourth-best defenseman and one of the reasons GM Stan Bowman has had to jettison significant pieces of his Cup-winning roster. Other teams are hamstrung by six-, seven- and eight-year deals they've handed out to players.

The Kovalchuk contract dwarfs most of them, so the risk of buyer's regret is exponentially greater. Many believe it's more a question of "when" that regret might set in as opposed to "if." Still, we have seen Kovalchuk play most of his career in Atlanta. There are flaws to his game, to be sure. He is never going to be a Frank J. Selke Trophy nominee, but his defensive game isn't as bad as some people would imagine.

We recall watching Kovalchuk race back to break up an odd-man rush against Philadelphia in the playoffs. Shocking? Maybe. But it happened. And as for his will to win, the fact he chose to eschew big money in Russia suggests that, like Ovechkin, Kovalchuk wants to win as much as the next guy, and he wants to win in North America.

Can he win in New Jersey? That question is no more unanswerable at this stage than wondering whether the Devils can win with him in the lineup. New Jersey fans will have most of the next two decades to find out.

For us, we can think of worse ways to spend $100 million.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.