New Jersey Devils v Los Angeles Kings - Game Six

At least at this point, nobody is really disputing that the New Jersey Devils are not going to be a good hockey team next season. Nobody prominent has come out and stated that the Devils are better off without Ilya Kovalchuk on the basis that he was a fat teammate/bad teammate/lazy teammate.

It’s interesting, because last season there was a case to be made that the Devils were a much better team than their record indicated. Fresh off of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, the Devils were a 55.1% Corsi Tied team with a .912 team even strength save percentage. They had excellent shot ratios but couldn’t buy a save. Headed into this season, they’re a patchwork club with little offence at best.

Financially, the Devils are probably better without Kovalchuk. There seem to be some allegations that Kovalchuk “stole” $23-million of the Devils’ money, that the Devils’ are again circumventing the salary cap or that it’s easy to convince a player owed $77-million to walk away from all of it. (Note to Stu Hackel, the Devils don’t actually have to “pay” any of the recapture cost.)

Kovalchuk played three years in Jersey and played generally well. I think that there’s some evidence (covered nicely by Driving Play) to suggest that he was on the down of his career, and with the biological clock striking 30 you couldn’t count on Kovalchuk to produce like an elite player. The Devils got three years of one of the best players in hockey right at the tail end of his prime. Besides, once you factor in the lockout year and Kovalchuk making about half of his salary, he got about $18.5-million from the Devils since his “money years” didn’t start until the shortened 2012-2013 season. Two of the the years he played for New Jersey for less than his cap hit.

Considering how many players bust when being paid $18.5-million, well, the Devils got some pretty good value from that (just as a means of comparison, the Toronto Maple Leafs have already paid out about $17.5-million for Mike Komisarek, plus the $2.3-million they owe for the buyout). For $18.5-million, the Devils got one of hockey’s best players of the 2000s. They got 79 goals and a forward that averaged more than 24 minutes over each of the last two seasons. Nobody really came close in ice-time. He killed penalties and was one of the reasons the Devils were a real dangerous team shorthanded.

Most of all, he was exciting and a true superstar and all these things that people said the Devils really needed. Even at their worst, the Devils were a team worth tuning into. Even if his rushes amounted to little in the last year, Kovalchuk was always a player that simply made hockey fun to watch. When he was hurt this year, the Devils went 1-6-4 and scored 1.73 goals per game, and were shut out three times in the eleven games. I loathe the use of “team record with player in the lineup/not in the lineup” but it was pretty clear that the Devils struggled mightily without Kovalchuk in the lineup. Considering he would play half the game, even if his puck-possession game was on the downswing, it’s tough to replace those minutes in your lineup.

As for cap circumvention? Well… if the New Jersey Devils sign contracts under the impression they can get players to walk away from $77-million, all the power to them. It looks somewhat dicey that Kovalchuk retired after three years, but the total cap benefit recapture is just $250K per season. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Devils really benefit from the long-term, front-loaded aspect of the deal because for some reason, the deal was structured to give Kovalchuk just $12-million in the first two years of the contract.

I would think that Gary Bettman gave a silent fist pump when he heard the news. One of his cash-strapped teams just got out of a $77-million commitment just as the real money years of the contract were beginning. Elliotte Friedman made the point on Twitter last night that not having that huge salary makes the Devils a much easier team to sell. Bettman re-wrote the collective bargaining agreement so that teams would no longer sign deals longer than eight years. I don’t think that he should be particularly angry that a club is now miraculously out of a 12-year commitment.

(The Devils, incidentally, become the first “victims” of the cap recapture penalty. Tom Tango has a good post up about how it’s not exactly a penalty, since it’s just deferred benefits from earlier in the deal.)

In the long-term future, this probably goes a way towards helping the Devils find a buyer, and prevents a giant headache in two to three years when Kovalchuk is nowhere close to the level of playing for an $11-million contract. In the short-term future, it doesn’t look good because an NHL team without too many good players is now without possibly their best player. Having lost David Clarkson, Zach Parise and the cheap, productive version of Petr Sykora, the Devils have lost four of their top six scorers from their Stanley Cup year, and all departed by way other than trade.

While the Devils do still have to surrender a first-round pick as a penalty for the circumvention on Kovalchuk’s original 17-year contract, it’s still a pretty small price to pay considering the team got a Cup Finals appearance out of the three years Kovalchuk existed in New Jersey. There’s a decent chance that the selection in next year’s draft could be a lottery pick, but there’s a non-zero chance it couldn’t be. The odds aren’t in favour of the Devils next season, but it’s hockey, and the Devils are one team, and weird things happen to teams all the time. Added reinforcements to the Devils’ now 28th-ranked prospect system are unlikely anytime soon.

(The Devils had a choice to give up the pick in each of the 2012 and 2013 drafts. The scuttlebutt I heard at the time was that the Devils kept the pick at the 2012 draft because they were real high on goaltender Andrei Vasilevski, who ended up going to Tampa Bay eleven choices before the Devils. Lou Lamoriello spent the 9th overall pick at the most recent draft to acquire a much older, experienced, and likely better goaltender, although the odds aren’t in favour of the Devils competing in the two-year period prior to Cory Schneider becoming an unrestricted free agent.)

But again, lots can happen. If the Devils, say, get Mikhail Grabovski under contract and trade for a productive Ales Hemsky, it would be like acquiring Kovalchuk and his replacement. Jaromir Jagr and Mason Raymond are also available, and while none are particularly good, there are players in the free agent pool that can be productive players. I’m sure Lou would have preferred more notice from Kovalchuk, but it’s not like the Devils would be better off knowing Kovalchuk would be gone and had replaced him with one of the contracts signed July 1, like David Clarkson or whomever. New Jersey’s best chance to re-create Kovalchuk’s production from age 28-30 is not to have Kovalchuk in the lineup from 31-42, or to sign expensive players like Ryane Clowe. It’s a combination of Lou’s specialty: redemption contracts and cheap, skilled players that can play multiple positions.

Next year could still be a disaster for the Devils, but I’m of the belief that Kovalchuk leaving piles of money in New Jersey won’t be so much of a negative for the Devils once they’ve sorted out their house. For the future, the Devils get a free pass out of a long-term salary commitment, and I don’t think it’s fair for Jeremy Roenick to suggest that Kovalchuk is “selfish” for walking away from $77-million on the table to go back home. He’ll probably make more in Russia, so everybody probably wins a little bit in the long run on this charade, except for the marketing departments of about 15 NHL teams that have trouble selling tickets, who have lost an attraction for when the Devils have come to town.