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A Look At The Ilya Kovalchuk Decision

A look at what the NHL's victory in the Kovalchuk arbitration hearing means for the future of the NHL.

Well here we are again, back to waiting on Ilya Kovalchuk to make a decision about his future. Yesterday the NHL won the battle, with arbitrator Richard Bloch agreeing that the NHL was well within its rights to deny the 17-year, $102 million contract that the Devils and Kovalchuk agreed to.

The backlash was pretty instantaneous, and most Devils fans are up in arms. How could the NHL accept the Marian HossaChris Pronger, Mark Savard and many other "Kovalchuk-type" contracts without accepting this one? The main argument is that precedence should have dictated a victory for the NHLPA.

That's where I disagree. Kovalchuk's contract -- although similar to the other deals -- was far more egregious than the others. Kovalchuk was being paid 97 percent of his money in the first 11 years of the contract. As from Bolch's official statement:

"In this case, the record strongly supports the claim this contract is 'intended to, or has the effect' of defeating or circumventing the Salary Cap provisions of the CBA. The overall structure of this SPC reflects not so much the hope that Mr. Kovalchuk will be playing in those advanced years, but rather the expectation that he will not. This is a long contract --17 years -- the longest in NHL history. That, in itself, poses no contractual problem, for the reasons discussed above. But Kovalchuk is 27 years old, and the agreement contemplates his playing until just short of his 44th birthday. That is not impossible, but it is, at the least, markedly rare. Currently, only one player in the League has played past 43 and, over the past 20 years only 6 of some 3400 players have played to 42...."

The ideology that there was no "intent" by either Kovalchuk -- nor the New Jersey Devils -- was one of the main forces behind driving a stake through this contract. Although you can point at other players playing in their early forties, they're almost always on one-year contracts. And while one can't assume that a player won't play into his early forties, there were simply too many signs that that was the intention with this contract.

I know that I sound like a broken record, but getting 97 percent of your money in the first 11 years of a 17-year deal leaves absolutely no intent to finish out the contract.

OK, so apart from defending this decision, what does this ruling mean for the NHL? There were many, even Lou Lamoriello himself, who said that deals like this were horrible for the NHL. And the expectation was that if the NHLPA won this deal, and the contract rejection was overturned, then it could become "open season" for all NHL general managers to sign their young free agents to long term contracts.

It would seem that the NHL has won this battle for now. Gary Bettman took a huge risk in rejecting this contract and won. The consequences could have been monstrous, and they still might be (in the next CBA negotiations). But for now, it would appear that contracts like this (or at least at this level) have been eradicated from the NHL. 

It will be interesting to see how the New Jersey Devils try to re-work this contract (if they do) or how other teams attempt to sign Kovalchuk from this point forward. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how teams handle their young free agents like Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty. Long-term contracts that circumvent the cap are probably not dead altogether, but it would seem like deals as blatant as Kovalchuk's are no longer tolerated.

Now we start the process all over again, with Kovalchuk - once again - being an unrestricted free agent, and free to renegotiate with the Devils or whomever else is interested.