When the NHL rejected Ilya Kovalchuk's 17-year, $102 million contract, it was a shot heard around the world. It was Gary Bettman standing up and drawing a line in the sand for all other NHL owners and general managers to see. The warning was simple: "This isn't acceptable any longer, we're putting a stop to it now."
So the NHLPA -- which no doubt looked at contracts like Marian Hossa's 12-year deal, Mark Savard's seven-year deal or Chris Pronger's five-year deal all get accepted -- filed a grievance citing that the NHL had no right to reject the contract, that it was perfectly legal and protected by the language in the CBA.
Many have hurled themselves onto one side of the battlefield or another; and if you haven't yet, I recommend that you do now because this thing is finally going to get resolved soon. Tomorrow, the NHL and the NHLPA will begin duking it out in a 48-hour arbitration hearing. If the NHL wins, the decision to reject the contract will be upheld and Kovalchuk will be an unrestricted free agent ... again. If the NHLPA wins, then the arbitrator will have ruled that the NHL had no right to reject the contract, and Kovalchuk will remain a New Jersey Devil.
But aside from Kovalchuk, the final words before the gavel is struck will have a tremendous impact on NHL hockey for the next two years. This decision is much more important for Bettman -- and quite frankly much bigger -- than just Kovalchuk and the Devils.
Let's hypothetically say that on Friday (the end of the 48-hour hearing) the arbitrator rules that the NHL had no right to reject the contract. Forget about Kovalchuk, Lamoriello and the Devils -- they are done with. What about the rest of the NHL owners and general managers? This decision could very well create an "open season" for signing free agents -- and young restricted free agents -- to huge contracts while the CBA allows it; since teams would know that the next CBA would probably contain specific language to put a stop to these types of deals.
Now let's take a quick break just to explain, that this will be a laser-pointed problem. NHL players and teams do not have the right to re-open contracts in order to re-negotiate the numbers. For instance, the New York Rangers can't open Wade Redden's contract and re-structure it so that he is only making $2 million a year instead of $6.5 million a year. With that being said, only players who are slated to become free agents during the current CBA will be eligible to be signed to these "Kovalchuk" type deals.
OK, back to the matter at hand. Last night on Rink Side Radio, Jeff Marek and I discussed how big of a problem this "open season" would be for the NHL. And two names specifically came up: 20-year-old Steven Stamkos, a 40-goal scorer last year who is in the final year of his contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning; and 20-year-old Drew Doughty -- by far one of the best young defensemen in the game today -- who is also entering the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Kings.
Marek speculated that a "25-year deal" would be something that Stamkos and Doughty's respective teams would be willing to dish out next off-season, to the utter horror of Bettman and the NHL. But what if general managers take it one step further? What if guys like Alexander Frolov -- who is currently on a one-year deal with the Rangers and will be a UFA next season -- gets a contract like Kovalchuk did (obviously on a lesser scale) next off-season? He would only be 29, has potential to put up 60+ points, and can be lethal on the power play. What would stop a team from giving him a 12-year $40-million dollar contract with $35-million dollars guaranteed in the first seven years?
And it's not just Frolov. Next year looks to be a class which is perfect for these "Kovalchuk" type deals. Look at some of the named: Brad Richards, Joe Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Alexander Semin, Andrei Markov, Simon Gagne, Patrice Bergeron and so many more. What's going to stop NHL general managers from having a field day with those players next year?
There is a chance - and this is obviously a doomsday hypothetical that I'm throwing out there now - that a significant amount of these "Kovalchuk" type deals being signed next year might help lead to another lockout. Even Lou Lamoriello said that these types of deals are horrible for the NHL. But that didn't stop him, and it sure wont stop the rest of the NHL.
Truthfully, the only thing that can stop them would be a ruling in the NHL's favor in tomorrow's hearing. As of right now, however, that's not looking very good.