Commentary

Ilya Kovalchuk's deal crossed line

Updated: August 9, 2010, 10:34 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeKovalchuk
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesHow likely would it have been for Ilya Kovalchuk to still be skating 17 years from now?

And so the hockey world reacts with shock and dismay after star winger Ilya Kovalchuk is once again a free agent after an arbitrator took a long look at his proposed 17-year, $102-million deal with the New Jersey Devils and ruled that it smelled like two-day old carp.

Why?

The deal stunk from the moment it was signed, and everyone -- from the NHL that rejected it on down to New Jersey president and GM Lou Lamoriello -- knew it.

Why do you think Lamoriello was so circumspect during the news conference to announce the deal back on July 19? What a sham that dog and pony show turned out to be.

The Devils knew even as Kovalchuk posed for pictures outside The Rock in Newark that the league was going to reject the deal on the grounds that it circumvented the collective bargaining agreement and they went blithely along, showing only contempt for their fans and their local media.

Devils fans who bought season tickets after the Kovalchuk "signing" should immediately ask for their money back, on principle.

On purely hockey terms we liked the deal. Who wouldn't want Kovalchuk at a $6 million cap hit for as long as he was able to bend over and pull on a pair of skates?

But arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled late Monday that the Kovalchuk deal was a "retirement" deal, which of course it was, stretching to what would have been a league-record 17 years. That's how you get an offensive machine like Kovalchuk at such a small cap hit. Or that's how you try to twist the collective bargaining agreement around to do so.

Bloch put a stop to that on Monday. More to the point, the NHL finally found a way to stop its own people from beating the tar out of the CBA.

Shocked?

What's shocking is that it took this long for the NHL to make its point with its own GMs.

The thinking among many agents and GMs in the days leading up to the Bloch ruling was that because so many of these so-called "cheat" deals, which are were heavily front-loaded and extended past players' careers end, had been approved over the past few years there was too much precedent to quash the Kovalchuk deal.

GMs and agents both pointed out that there is no specific language in the CBA to prevent giving a contract to a player that pays him until he's 42 (such as Marian Hossa's deal) or 43 (such as Roberto Luongo's deal).

But clearly there was a line in the sand as far as these so-called "cheat" deals go, and Bloch ruled that the Kovalchuk deal crossed that line.

Part of it was the player's age at the end of the deal; Kovalchuk would have been 44. Bloch is right, no one not named Chris Chelios plays that long. Mark Recchi is currently the oldest player in the NHL, and he just signed a one-year deal with Boston that will take him to his 43rd birthday.

According to Bloch, only six players from more than 3,400 in the past two decades have played to the age of 42.

That, coupled with the fact that Kovalchuk's salary would have taken a precipitous dive -- from a high point of $11.5 million, which he would have been paid in years three through seven of the deal, to $550,000 for the final five years of the deal -- were enough for Bloch to take the league's side on this contentious issue.

So, we ask again, why are people shocked that Bloch threw this deal onto the scrap heap?

A number of GMs told ESPN.com that whether there was language in the CBA that directly addressed these deals specifically or not, everyone knew these deals were a sham, a way of beating the system.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have been warning GMs to stop doing this for a number of years now.

GMs didn't listen then. Maybe they'll listen now.

Funny how the NHL shut itself down for a year, erasing the entire 2004-05 season, flirting with wholesale disaster in the process, to come up with a system that was supposed to save GMs from themselves. As it turns out it wasn't the system that was flawed, but the determination of some GMs to betray the system.

[+] EnlargeIlya Kovalchuk
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDevils fans who bought season tickets after the Kovalchuk "signing" should ask for their money back.

If the cautionary words of Bettman and Daly didn't do the trick in terms of eliminating these deals, we're pretty sure the Bloch ruling will. Especially if the NHL uses this ruling to go back into the Hossa, Luongo and other deals.

As for Kovalchuk, he turned down a 15-year deal worth $80 million from the Los Angeles Kings that GM Dean Lombardi said was structured in a completely different manner. In short, the Kings' offer wasn't a cheat deal.

Still looking to make an impact this offseason, the Kings would be crazy not to revisit the Kovalchuk situation.

There were also a number of teams that offered Kovalchuk a one-year deal for the maximum allowed under the CBA -- $11.88 million or 20 percent of the cap -- and they may want to make another pitch, given the way the New Jersey deal has fallen to pieces. There's also the Kontinental Hockey League, which had tried to lure Kovalchuk to Russia with promises of making him the centerpiece of their Olympic team moving toward the 2014 Sochi Games, a tournament that may or may not include NHL players.

And then there are the Devils.

In a statement Monday night, Lamoriello said his team would reopen talks with Kovalchuk in the hopes of getting him to sign a deal that will pass muster with the NHL.

It won't be easy. Even if the 17-year deal had gone through, Lamoriello was going to have to dump salary to fit Kovalchuk under the $59.4 million salary cap. Now he'll have to find a way to get Kovalchuk under contract with a cap hit that will almost certainly be higher.

Maybe Lamoriello and Kovalchuk's agent Jay Grossman had a Plan B in their back pocket, anticipating that the league would finally rear up on its hind legs and say enough.

Maybe.

The hockey community is full of reverence for Lamoriello. Why not, given that he turned a woebegone franchise in New Jersey into a three-time Cup champ.

But if Kovalchuk walks it will be yet another blight on a post-lockout record that has been full of disappointments and miscalculations on the part of the Devils.

Bigger picture, some are suggesting the Kovalchuk ruling is the first border war in what may be another Terminator-style clash between the players and the owners when a new CBA is expected to be bargained at the end of the 2011-12 season.

That's a bit too James Cameron for us.

There's no doubt that the league will move to cap the length of contracts and close the loophole that has been so successfully exploited by GMs to date. But this will be but one of many issues the league will want to address just as the players will be keen to limit the amount of salary that goes into escrow, Olympic participation and sharing in expansion fees.

Will the next lockout/strike be known as the Kovalchuk Stoppage? Don't think so.

A lot of water will flow under the NHL bridge between before then.

In the interim, the NHL has finally succeeded in doing what it seemed powerless to do for so long. That is, bring its own GMs to heel.

In the end maybe that it took this long is the only shocking part of this whole thing.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.