It’s no new news that the NHL rejected the seventeen-year $102 million contract the New Jersey Devils awarded superstar left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, due to allegations that it doesn’t comply with the current collective bargaining agreement and a high amount of skepticism that Kovalchuk won’t be playing until he’s forty-four, which is how old he’ll be when the deal expires. The Devils have three options: submit a modified contract, let the NHLPA file grievance, or forget the whole thing and let Kovalchuk officially return to the UFA market. In all likeliness, I’m quite confident in saying Kovalchuk will still remain a long term Devil once everything has been settled. Not that I’m frustrated about the league’s rejection of the deal, rather I’m more annoyed that the drama is forcibly being continued.
As of now, the Devil’s current checklist should be as it stands: Settle the Kovalchuk dispute. Once that’s over and done with, refocus on the team’s salary cap situation. Once the team gets the flexibility they need in cap space, secure Zach Parise’s future with the team, which this article from the Star Ledger documented as an acknowledged priority. Lastly, evaluate the team and see if there’s room for additional improvement.
An informative source I have said a few NHL organizations avidly protested and complained about the Kovalchuk contract, the alleged ringleaders being the Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, and a third team believed to be the New York Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins. I know Glen Sather and Lou Lamoriello are good friends so I’d find it unlikely the Rangers would protest any mega-deal, let alone the Kovalchuk deal, especially when you consider the team’s well-documented history of overpaying players over lengthy periods of time (this is not a shot at the Rangers FYI, although the Ranger’s deals never exceeded seven years).
I digress. Getting back to this new chapter in the Kovalchuk saga, I sympathize the league’s reasons for rejecting the deal, considering the length and how the $102 million is distributed (Kovalchuk will make less than $1 million per in the final six years)…yes, it’s a very front loaded deal and you could counter that by pointing out the numerous other front loaded contracts awarded to players in recent years, but apparently there was something different about this particular contract that gave the NHL reason to disprove it. This could be where the length of the contract comes into play, making it the longest deal in NHL history. Sure Ovechkin signed a thirteen-year deal, but he’ll be thirty-five when it expires. Rick DiPietro will be forty when his fifteen-year deal concludes, and Mike Richards and Marian Hossa will he thirty-five and forty-two when their twelve-year deals expire, respectively. Chris Pronger will be forty-two after his seven-year deal.
Marian Hossa is currently the only player in the NHL that’s currently under contract for more than ten years that expires when he’s over forty. At forty-four it seems unlikely for any athlete to be actively playing in any sport (although you never know what scientific or medical advances the future has in store for us…just saying) and despite the ability to use the likes of Mark Messier, Chris Chelios, Mark Recchi, Gordie Howe, and Igor Larianov as examples, I can’t stress the term “unlikely” enough as those are a handful of players that accomplished the feat out of thousands over the years. If you want to be technical and play a numbers game, Kovalchuk stands less than a one percent chance of playing beyond his early forties.
Fortunately, there are a few solutions to appease all parties involved in this dispute that I’m sure are being explored. The deal can be shortened, resulting in a larger cap hit for the Devils, or they can distribute the annual salaries a little more evenly. You can point out that the league accepted Chris Pronger’s contract with a salary drop-off around $3 million after the deal’s fourth and fifth years and how Pronger only receives $525,000 in the final two years of the deal. He does only receive a salary under $1 million for two years compared to the six Kovalchuk would, not to mention Pronger is thirty-five with his deal going into effect this coming season. Call me on it if I’m wrong, but I believe if Pronger retires, is waived, or brought out, the Flyers still carry his cap hit of $4.9 million, whereas the Devils could waive or buy out (I know there isn’t a chance it would happen considering the deal, but still) Kovalchuk’s contract without having to worry about the full cap hit of around $6 million because he was younger than thirty-five when the deal was signed. If the matter ends up going to court, the Devils and NHLPA seem confident of a favorable ruling. It could turn into a frustratingly long and tedious process, but could end weeks of speculation, drama, and frustration.
Assuming the Devils keep Kovalchuk, he’s going to have an annual cap hit of at least $6 million, exceeding the league’s salary cap limitation. As we all know, the Devils would have to get back under the salary cap before the coming season commences and speculation as to who the likely odd men out would be have already begun. The two most mentioned names and likely candidates to be victimized by salary dumping are forward Danius Zubrus and defenseman Bryce Salvador, who have a combined cap hit of $6.3 million. Zubrus and Salvador respectively have three and two years remaining on their contracts and while both players have been serviceable during their time with the Devils, neither has an NTC or NMC.
Contrary to what people want to believe, the Devils will not lose any significant skill by dumping salary to fit under the cap. Salvador is a solid shutdown defenseman, but doesn’t excel in the position and is ultimately replaceable. With youngsters like Mark Fraser, Anssi Salmela, and rookie hopefuls Matt Corrente, Alexander Urbom, and Tyler Eckford, I see no reason why they can’t replace Salvador and perform just as good if not better for a fraction of the cost. Some fans are hesitant to see Zubrus go because of his valiant playoff performance this past spring and the versatility that’s featured in his game. Zubrus can play any forward position and any role but hasn’t surpassed totals no higher than fifteen goals or forty points in his three years with New Jersey. His numbers can surely be replaced and with a depth chart revived with natural centers and wingers, it could lessen the significance of Zubrus’ ability to play center one night and left wing another.
Two players fans have fantasized about seeing moved are winger Brian Rolston and defenseman Colin White. Both have two years remaining on their deals, Rolston having a painful $5.2 million cap hit, while White’s is $3 million. Rolston has arguably underachieved when you consider his salary and expectations when he was signed, amassing only thirty-five goals in the past one hundred forty-four games he’s played since signing with the Devils, not to mention hasn’t factored much on the power play to the Devil’s benefit. Many argue Colin White hasn’t been the same since sustaining an eye injury that held him out for the beginning of the 2007-2008 season. White seldom fights anymore and isn’t the noticeable physical force, having once been described as another Scott Stevens in the making. Nonetheless, he’s still a sufficient defensive defenseman that could have outgrown his time in New Jersey. Should he end up a cap casualty, the loss won’t be as mournful as it seems, save losing a familiar face that’s been part of the team over a decade. Disposing of the combined $8.2 million in salary would help the Devil’s immensely, not to mention open opportunities for the youth crop on the big team. It’s great to dream, however the nature of the contracts really lessens the possibilities.
Saying the Devils can’t lock up Kovalchuk and Parise is a statement shrouded in ignorance and more so fueled by the want rather than belief of people to not see it happen. If the Detroit Red Wings can lock up Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen, I don’t see why the Devils can’t do the same with their core players. Parise stated he was further encouraged to stay with the Devils when they signed Kovalchuk because he was intrigued by playing with one of the game’s premiere stars that he felt could achieve long term success with. If Kovalchuk’s current deal stands, it’ll only be an average cap hit of $6 million per, which I’m sure has frustrated nay sayers that expected the deal to significantly cripple the Devil’s cap situation down the stretch. Parise will likely command an annual salary of at least $6-7 million over a span of six or more years with a cap hit that’ll be similar or identical to Kovalchuk’s. I don’t understand why people automatically assume a combined $12 million plus cap hit between two players will cripple a team down the road. Detroit has $12 million plus tied between Zetterberg and Datsyuk and they’re functioning nicely, the Flyers have the same amount tied between Briere and Timonen, and the Sharks have over $14 million tied between Thornton and Heatley.
The bottom line is you do what you have to in order to lock up your go to guys.
Need I remind my readers between the 2011 and 2013 off-season, the Devils currently have almost $30 million in salary coming off from players that are likely to retire, sign elsewhere, are replaceable, or re-sign for less money than what their current deals pay them. Although it’s stifled him in the past, look at the big picture, step back and think about it…do you really think Lou Lamoriello didn’t know what he was getting himself into before committing to Kovalchuk and likely doing the same (but probably to a lesser degree) for Parise? I think the Devils will be better off than most people think or want to believe as far as their cap situation is concerned.
Lastly, is there room on this team for further improvement? I can say in confidence the Devils are solid up front for the first time in years, but with an unproven Andy Greene as the only offensive force on the blue line, I’m sure the desire for another puck moving defenseman is mutual amongst fans. Cap space will obviously be a factor, but there are options out there. I’ve mentioned Tomas Kaberle, Brent Burns, and Sheldon Souray in previous write ups that bring the offensive skill the defense needs, although each player possesses their own individual catch. With the recent spur of trade rumors surrounding Kevin Bieska, you could assume the Devils have interest since there hasn’t been any public indication (jokingly of course). The only flaws to consider are his health problems as he’s never played a full season and he seems to be on the ice for a lot of goals against. Nonetheless, he’s the productive puck mover the team needs, who can be further disciplined by the team’s tradition of defensive maintenance, and should come at a reasonable price.