Commentary

Many questions in wake of nixed deal

Updated: July 21, 2010, 6:59 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

In the wake of the NHL's shocking move to reject the 17-year, $102 million deal struck between star winger Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils, many unanswered questions and conspiracy theories hang in the air.

First, a source told ESPN.com on Wednesday morning that Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello was aware of the NHL's plans to reject the deal in advance of a news conference held Tuesday in Newark to announce the contract and still went ahead with the media availability.

Why? Why would Lamoriello endorse the perception that this was a done deal and the Devils were planning a long future with Kovalchuk if he knew the deal was going to be challenged by the league?

It was definitely more than a little disingenuous to fans who might have been prompted to buy season tickets after the news conference. Lamoriello certainly looked uncomfortable answering questions about the structure of the deal.

Is it beyond the realm of possibility Lamoriello went ahead with the package that would have paid Kovalchuk $95 million in the first 10 years of the league-record contract because he was counting on the fact the league wouldn't allow it?

Lamoriello, who helped craft the collective bargaining agreement that brought an end to the 2004-05 lockout in the summer of 2005, is among the craftiest GMs in the league. Multiple sources have indicated they don't believe the league's rejection of the deal is based on an obvious transgression of the language in the CBA but rather on the league's belief that the structure of the deal, heavily front-loaded with the final five years paying the paltry sum of $550,000 annually, defies the "spirit" of the CBA.

Is it beyond the realm of possibility Lamoriello was hoping to bring Kovalchuk under contract at a more manageable term and dollar?

Either way, the charade of Tuesday's news conference was distasteful.

And what of Kovalchuk, who again will find himself an unrestricted free agent if he and agent Jay Grossman can't find a way to rework the contract with the Devils to satisfy the NHL? The big winger was juggling offers from a number of other suitors, most notably the Los Angeles Kings and the Kontinental Hockey League, before signing on with New Jersey for life.

Is there a way to salvage the deal in New Jersey that suits him? Will the Kings, whose last offer to Kovalchuk was a 15-year, $80 million deal, take another run at him? Does the big forward take another look at a lucrative offer to return to Russia and become the centerpiece of its national program leading up to the 2014 Olympics there in Sochi?

Even if Kovalchuk isn't back at square one, the league's rejection of the deal certainly has altered the playing field confronting Kovalchuk and Grossman.

A source told ESPN.com there were a number of teams that offered the star forward a one-year deal at the maximum allowed by the cap. Do those teams return to the fray now that the league has officially chilled the long-term, front-loaded contract frenzy? Because that's what this move by the league has surely done. Had the Kovalchuk contract stood, what would have stopped another GM from signing a top player to a 20-year deal with a nice friendly cap hit?

There remains great debate about whether the league has a leg to stand on in rejecting this contract.

A source familiar with NHL contracts and the CBA told ESPN.com that he can't see how the NHL could win its case -- that the deal circumvents the collective bargaining agreement -- if it went to court. What's to stop a team from signing a player to a contract that takes him into his 40s, the source said. There is no language in the CBA to prohibit that, the source pointed out.

Regardless, GMs, who had been warned repeatedly by league brass that the NHL was not happy with these kinds of deals, will follow this path at their peril, finally knowing the NHL isn't simply blowing smoke when it talks about taking a hard look at these deals.

What team will take a run at Kovalchuk knowing he'll want top dollar and a long term (the Devils would have paid him $11.5 million a year for five years starting in the third year of the 17-year pact)? Few, if any. That dynamic -- paying up front and giving extra years at a low salary to drop the average cap hit -- is what has made these kinds of so-called "cheat" deals so popular in recent years.

But now, after months of stern warnings, the NHL has finally fired a significant shot across the bow of GMs and agents. Beyond that, the league's rejection of the Kovalchuk deal has far-reaching implications for future negotiations between the union and ownership.

It's believed the NHL Players' Association will file a grievance over the league's rejection of the Kovalchuk deal. It has five business days from Wednesday to do so. If the union does grieve, an arbitrator will decide whether the league was within its rights to scuttle the deal.

The league's move highlights what will be one of many flash points in the next round of bargaining between the players and owners with the current CBA set to expire at the end of the 2011-12 season.

The league almost certainly will look to limit the length of contracts and solidify language governing the range of payments acceptable within a contract to close the loophole of deals tendered to Roberto Luongo, Marc Savard, Marian Hossa and others preceding the Kovalchuk deal.

But that won't come easily; the players will be looking for some kind of giveback (perhaps in terms of escrow or Olympic participation) if they're going to accept such limitations.

In short, the league might not like these deals and might have moved to solve the problem in the short term with its bold move on the Kovalchuk deal, but that doesn't mean this fight is anywhere close to being over.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.