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.

Comments (20)

  1. alright I’ll be the first to chime in. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this move, It’s a young guy with a young family that he wants to raise Russian. I think this article illustrated how well kovalchuk played, but I will add IMO he was far and away the conn smythe winner if the Devils won the cup. Roenick is one of the most selfish players ever to play in the NHL judging by his reputation (Massive fat head ego). Of all the personalities to chime in on Kovalchuk, Roenicks has the most irony considering how hated in the league he was.

    • The issue is that Kovalchuk wanted this big, gigantic lifelong contract. He got it, and now he’s bailing on it 3 years into it. The Devils gave up a lot for him, but he only gave them 3 years of the 15 he promised.

      The Devils gave up:
      -In the trade to get him: Oduya, Cormier, Bergfors, 1st rounder (I believe this wound up being Kevin Hayes in Chicago)
      -As a result of re-signing him: 3 Million dollars, 1st rounder, 3rd rounder
      -Inability to resign Parise
      -250,000 in cap space until 2025

      That’s a lot for 3 years.

      • While I’d argue that a player has an obligation to play on a year-to-year basis, if they want to “retire” (as questionable as that might be in this case), they’re under no obligations to the team so long as, if they choose to return to the league, they jump back into the contract.

        If you demand a trade, then, sure, you’re a douche. But if you don’t play for ANYONE? The team’s not paying your salary. It’s the same thing as if he was concussed last season and had to retire early because of an injury. The Devils would have expected him in the lineup, but it’s not as though he’s breaking faith by not playing there.

        • Not as though he’s breaking faith? Really? Will you think that when they announce his 15-20 million a year contract in the KHL?

          For the record, if he comes back to the league, he will NOT have to resume his contract. The team had an option on that, but decided not to exercise it. There are significant hoops for him to jump through to come back, in any event. I don’t blame the team for not exercising that option…I mean, what if Kovy stays in Russia for 6 years and then wants to come back and resume the highest paying portion of his contract at 36 or 37 years old?

      • I don’t think that he wanted the big lifetime contract, he more wanted the money. The team used a big lifetime contract to get him the money with minimal cap hit, with both parties expecting him to not play the entirety of it.

        If the first contract they offered him wasn’t as insane they wouldn’t have lost 3 Million dollars, 1st rounder, 3rd rounder.

        And you forget an important part about Parise, he wan’ted to play with Suter. Even without him could NJ have signed both to the deals that they wanted?

        • As if there weren’t at least 5 other contracts that were equally insane, yet nothing happened to those teams.

          • Yep, there were plenty of other insane contracts that eventually led to Kovalchuk’s. His wasn’t substantively different than the others, but since the NHL didn’t say “no” to the early ones, they felt they needed to make and example of the Devils.

            As for Parise, the Devils signed a star forward that plays his position, paid him 100 million dollars, and then didn’t offer Parise what he could make on the open market. He did want to play at home, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Had the Devils offered a bit more and had Parise been “the guy”, it very well may have ended up differently.

          • 17 years is probably the most insane and was probably the tipping point for the league. 15 years is 2 years less insane but still freaking insane.

          • ..and yet, the DiPietro contract was for 15 years, so it wasn’t really that out of the realm of what had already been done. Again, I get why the league voided it, but they should have voided others too – and there’s no need to take away draft picks/3 million dollars…There was no clearly defined line, so it kept getting pushed without comment – why not stop it when it started?

      • I think it’s pointless to argue the size of the contract OR the money. He was the coveted FA at the time and multiple teams were placing huge lengthy contracts on the table. The biggest one won. It’s not his fault that GM’s were looking for ways to offer him the biggest contract imaginable. They did what they needed to do to compete with other teams in an effort to sign him.

        With that said, whether its a 17 year contract or one of the new 8 year contracts, It sucks to see somebody bail out near the beginning. Teams do expect you to fulfill your terms, barring injury, and they have to plan years down the road to sign some of these guys, so yeah… it sucks and it probably is legit to say he’s acting a little selfish here. I mean, priorities change, and if he’s doing this for his family thats his priority, but it’s still a little selfish in some respects. He’s choosing to break a commitment for his family. It might be the right kind of selfish, but the term is still valid.

        • “and yet, the DiPietro contract was for 15 years,”

          Yes… 15 years for $4.5 million PER YEAR.

          If the Devils had done that, the League wouldn’t have come down on them. The issue was that the deal was long AND severely front-loaded, with the “retirement years” at the end serving to dilute the cap hit. If the cap hit and the salary are the same, there’s no issue with long-term deal.

      • Yes, both that pick and Oduya ended up in Chicago. The Thrashjets are one of their favorite trading partners to the point where the fans refer to them as Blackhawks north (Ladd, Byfuglien and now Frolik went the other way.)

  2. How long before Ovechkin does the same thing,2-3 years would be a good guess.

    • No worries at all since he always claimed to want to stay here (aside from a self admittedly empty threat during the lock-out), but in 3 or 4 years I as a Caps fan would probably encourage to go for the same reasons that help the Devils. Unlike Kovy, his K doesn’t back-dive so he’ll keep making $ even during his decline. And that’s why I’d like to see him gone in a few years.

  3. I’d argue against anyone who is saying Kovalchuk is on the decline. In my opinion, he has a very big engine in him, and a desire to win. He took care of himself, he hasn’t lost a step, and traditionally the ability to shoot does not decline with age. I think he would have been a 40 goal scorer for at least 4 more years, and still a factor after that.

    I think this hurts NJ more than you think. Our attendance we better this year, even with the record being lousy. A big part of the draw was Ilya, so that will hurt. But the hurt goes deeper than that. It hurts our faith in humanity, or our faith that there aren’t some NHL stars out there who wont bolt to the nearest exit at the first opportunity. What do I tell my brother who’s Kovalchuk jersey is now going to collect dust in his closet? Do we change it to Henrique? But wont he just go away, too?

    • Yep, no way Kovalchuk is on the decline. His numbers in NJ were slightly lower because he was expected to play defensively (not required in Atlanta)…plus he was playing absolutely insane minutes, which probably made him less effective while he was on the ice, even though he was on the ice longer.

      Yep, the attendance in NJ, contrary to popular opinion, had been great. They sold out all but two games last year…a big part of that was the cup run and being able to market Kovalchuk. They’d sold a bunch of season tickets for this year too. I wonder how many calls they are getting to cancel today…

      • Saying Kovalchuk is on the decline doesn’t necessarily mean he’s seeing huge dips in performance. Decline at his age is slow and not very big, but it probably exists nonetheless. He was well over a point per game player in Atlanta, now he’s not. I don’t think improved defense makes up for that.

  4. I hope he keeps his head down during the Olympics.

  5. Could the devils not have encouraged him to retire, to get out of the contract? There could be more to this than just kovalchuck wanting to go to Russia.

    • There’s been banter, but if it is true, Lou certainly didn’t say so on his call. All statements point to the Devils not initiating this move. However, they also did not dispute or fight it, which they could have.

      For me, it does not make sense for the Devils to chase him. He’s a big time scorer, something they certainly lack upon his departure. They bring their chances of winning the cup to just barely above zero for the next couple years. If you know Lou, he wants to win a cup every year, and wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that.

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