Commentary

Warnings preceded NHL's bold move

Updated: July 21, 2010, 9:47 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Guess the NHL didn't buy Ilya Kovalchuk's claims that he planned to go all Chris Chelios and play right through to the end of his league-record, 17-year, $102 million deal with the New Jersey Devils.

[+] EnlargeMartin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesMartin Brodeur, left, and the Devils welcomed back Ilya Kovalchuk on Tuesday, but the NHL later rejected the forward's record deal.

Or make that former deal.

The NHL rejected the historic pact late Tuesday night because it believes the contract contravenes elements of the collective-bargaining agreement.

The league's response to the Kovalchuk deal, signed Monday, is shocking on a number of fronts.

More than a year ago, the league warned GMs that it was unhappy with the number of long-term deals whose cap hit was made more manageable by heavily front-loading the contract and tacking on years at the end. These deals worked for players because they made most of the money early in the contract; the deals worked for GMs who were looking to keep the average cap hit as low as possible, giving them more financial flexibility.

Marian Hossa, for instance, will see his paycheck go from $7.9 million at the start of his 12-year deal in Chicago to $750,000 at the end with an annual cap hit of $5.233 million. Roberto Luongo signed a 12-year deal that will see his earnings drop from a high of $10 million (in 2010-11) to $1 million at the end (in 2020-21 and 2021-22).

The league hates these deals. The NHL believes many of them are bogus because they will last longer than the players' careers, thus circumventing the spirit of the CBA. While league officials made their feelings of unhappiness well known to GMs, they did not outright reject deals made with players like Hossa, Luongo, Chris Pronger, Marc Savard and Johan Franzen, among others. They accepted the deals, later investigated them and, in the end, let them be.

Presumably, the NHL found no evidence of an agent or player giving a team the old "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" about not playing after a certain point in the contract since the team wouldn't be on the hook for the rest of the deal (provided the player wasn't 35 when the contract took effect, as was the case with the contract extension Pronger signed with Philadelphia).

Clearly, though, the league believed its warning to cease and desist these kinds of deals was falling on deaf ears; and when it saw the whopper deal Kovalchuk, his agent Jay Grossman, and New Jersey president and GM Lou Lamoriello came up with, the league said "enough."

And there is a lot about the deal that flies in the face of the league's warnings. There's the term (17 years), which would make Kovalchuk 44 if he actually played through to the end of the deal. He told reporters Tuesday that was his intention. But, well, what else was he going to say? "Actually, I'll likely hang 'em up after Year 10 because that's when the money really starts to disappear."

That might be the truth -- Kovalchuk would have earned $95 million of the contract's $102 million value through the first 10 years with a top end of $11.5 million. In the last five years of the deal, should he still be tottering around the ice, Kovalchuk would pull in just $550,000 annually. In pro-sports parlance, that's living well below the poverty line.

So, instead of biding its time, the league stepped out of character, big time. It let Kovalchuk and the Devils have a nice love-in Tuesday afternoon in Newark with cameras and photographers and reporters. The league never bothered to give the team a heads-up that there was trouble in contract city. The league let it all play out and then slammed the door on Lou & Co. as the news leaked out late Tuesday night.

Now, it's going to get really interesting. The NHL Players' Association will have five days to decide whether to grieve the league's rejection of the contract. Expect the union will do just that, unless someone comes up with some sort of flaw in the contract that directly defies language in the CBA.

There are regulations in the CBA that cover fluctuations in contract payments. For instance, a source told ESPN.com on Tuesday night that a player can't get paid $10 million one year and $1 million the next; and there have been contracts that have had to be altered to ensure those regulations were followed.

Given that Lamoriello, one of the architects of the CBA during the lockout, was at the helm and Grossman, a veteran agent, was riding herd on things from the player's end, it would be shocking if the basis for the rejection was something as simple as that.

This leaves us to surmise that the league will somehow have to argue this deal is different than all the other ones it accepted.

But is it? Over the past year, GMs regularly told ESPN.com that while the league might not have liked the way these kinds of contracts came together, there was absolutely nothing in the CBA to stop them from doing it.

Apparently, the NHL has now called the GMs' bluff.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.