Thoughts On Kovalchuk

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Scott Lewis has done a fine job the last couple of days weighing in on the ludicrous 17-year contract that the New Jersey Devils offered to Ilya Kovalchuk, and because of that I hesitated to comment, but given that it’s summer, this is the biggest story around and I’ve got a few thoughts that aren’t being given wide play, I’m going to toss out a few things myself.

Length Doesn’t Matter, It’s How… Never Mind

The length of Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract is understandably getting significant play, but the fixation with the 17-year mark is, in my opinion, misplaced.  To pick on one outlet, TSN compares the deal to long-term deals signed by Rick DiPietro and Alexander Ovechkin, among others.

The reality is those contracts aren’t comparable; Rick DiPietro got paid $4.5 million in 2006-07, he’ll get paid $4.5 million in 2020-21, and he’ll be paid $4.5 million every year in between.  DiPietro’s contract really kicked off the really long-term pacts that have become a regular occurrence in the NHL (give the Islanders credit – they’re trend-setters) and had the NHL had an issue with long contracts that issue would have come out then and there.  Ovechkin actually gets a modest raise in 2014-15, from $9.0 million per season up to $10.0 million per year.

Length is a non-issue here.  Gary Bettman has previously commented that he doesn’t like these long-term deals, but the NHL has shown time and again that they will allow teams to balance the risk/reward ratio for themselves.

It’s All About Selling Realism

The problem with the contract is that while a quick glimpse shows nothing wrong – crazy years, check, big dollars, check, wake me when free agency ends – anyone looking at the breakdown of the deal (as I assume everyone has by now) has to be astonished by Kovalchuk’s willingness to play for a fourth-line rate of pay (or for fans of the New York Rangers, the hypothetical rate paid to players underneath the fourth-liners) for the last six years of his contract.

Others (everyone?) have pointed out that there are plenty of contracts out there that look a little fishy, and they’re right.  Scott linked to a Behind The Net piece earlier today which compared Kovalchuk’s deal graphically with some of these other deals, but the number and impact of the fake years tacked on to the end of Kovalchuk’s contract far exceeds those handed out earlier.  Let’s compare:

  • Ilya Kovalchuk (hypothetically, as in all of these cases) will spend the final five years of his deal earning just $550,000 – less than one-tenth of the average cap hit over the 17-year deal.  In the year preceding those five, he’ll earn just $750,000.
  • Marian Hossa will earn just $1.0 million per season over the final four years of his deal – a hair under one-fifth of the average cap hit of his deal.
  • Chris Pronger will earn just $525,000 over the final two seasons of his deal, just over one-tenth the average value of his contract.  This deal probably should have been overturned by the NHL, but in this particular case the Flyers may have outsmarted themselves – because Pronger will be over 35 when the deal goes into effect, if he retires for those final two seasons the Flyers don’t get out of the cap hit, and given how little money he’ll be making (after the age of 40) there may be precious little reason for him to stick around.
  • Like Pronger, Marc Savard will earn just $525,000 over the final two years of his deal, a number that represents a little over 13% the average value of his deal.

Other players have similarly suspicious years at the ends of their deals – Duncan Keith has one, Roberto Luongo has two, Vincent Lecavalier has one (maybe two, depending on how one counts), Henrik Zetterberg has two, Johan Franzen has two, Mattias Ohlund has one, and so on.  It’s common practice for long-term deals now, and I’d suggest any general manager (at least those who have to worry about the salary cap) who signs a player to one of these long-term deals should be tagging on a few years at a reduced rate at the end of the deal, to make the cap hit manageable.  Those that aren’t bending the spirit of the CBA a little bit are putting themselves at a disadvantage.

But while it’s conceivable that the players above might be willing to play for $1.0 million or so over the last year or two of their careers, only three deals see star NHLers scraping along near the league minimum over their final years.  The Savard deal probably should have been overturned, although the fact that he earns substantially less than the other players on the list makes that offence a little less egregious.

The Pronger deal had no business being approved by the league, but Paul Holmgren is going to look like a prize idiot if Pronger does retire and the Flyers are stuck with that cap hit for two seasons thanks to the over-35 rule.  It’s a case where I’d be all too happy to see the Flyers suffer at the hands of the same rules they were attempting to circumvent.

The Kovalchuk deal really isn’t in the same ballpark as those other players.  Six years of near minimum-wage pay is more than three times as long as any other team has ever tried to worm through the NHL head office.  It sees him take a 95% pay cut over a period of six years.

The Weasel Zone

In Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, Scott Adams talks about the “gigantic gray area between good moral behaviour and outright felonious activities,” something he calls the “Weasel Zone.”  He explains:

In the Weasel zone everything is misleading, but not exactly a lie.  There’s a subtle difference.  When you lie, you hope to fool someone.  But when you’re being a weasel, everyone is aware that you’re a manipulative, scheming, misleading sociopath.

So while we all suspect that Marian Hossa might retire a year early, leaving the Blackhawks with a salary cap discount at no cost to the team, we don’t quite know it.  the Kovalchuk contract crosses the line from being suspicious to being nearly certain; it’s a place where the NHL simply must draw the line.

But It’s Not Really A Big Deal

In the end, I doubt it’s going to matter.  The NHLPA may file a grievance, and we may see some more dancing around, but the final result seems almost certain to me: Camp Kovalchuk and the Devils will rework the contract, keep a couple of ugly looking years tacked on to the end while nixing the rest, and the contract will move from a spot where it’s plainly in violation of the CBA to a spot where it may or may not be.  Kovalchuk may give up some money, and the Devils may give up some cap space, but I suspect that will be the extent of the ramifications.

That, and we will have gained the benefit of knowing where the NHL’s leniency ends.