Remember when you were young / You shone like the sun(belt division)

In the absence of all other news, I think that the whole Ilya Kovalchuk situation is still a good jumping off point for this week. What’s been under-reported in all the opinion pieces about whether Kovalchuk quit on his New Jersey teammates is what the cost against the cap for the Devils would have been if Kovalchuk had decided to retire with 5 or 9 years left on his deal rather than 12.

I represent a minority of hockey fans because i’m not fundamentally opposed to the idea of salary cap recapture. Since the Devils are the first team to be dinged for the $3-million in salary cap benefits they received in the time that Kovalchuk was a Devil thanks to his front-loaded deal, they represent the test case. Nobody’s going to be cool with Kovalchuk leaving after three of 15 years and the optics aren’t good, but as I wrote Friday, it was probably the best situation for New Jersey going forward.

Stars, especially those at the wrong side of 28, don’t exactly age gracefully. While Martin St. Louis and Daniel Sedin won recent scoring titles in their 30s, it’s not like every year the best offensive stars in the NHL aren’t spry pups in their physical prime.

In 2013, the ages of the top five NHLers in goal scoring were 27, 22, 22, 28 and 24 years old, respectively. In 2003, they were 26, 29, 27, 24, 30. In 1993, with Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne each netting 76, the ages of the top five players was 23, 22, 27, 26 and 21 and ten years before that in 1983, they were 22, 29, 26, 22 and 31, respectively.

That’s just an illustration of how over the years, younger players have tended to dominate the top of the goal-scoring ranks. This is partly why people are always so underwhelmed by long contracts signed to UFAs—they get signed after players are finished with their peak seasons. There may be certain exceptions for players with just a strong defensive game as an offensive one, like Marian Hossa or Zdeno Chara, but Hossa’s deal still has eight years left on it as a 34-year-old and Chara still has five. The two Stanley Cups Hossa has helped the Blackhawks win obviously makes his contract worth it in the end, but it doesn’t mean he won’t be a salary cap headache later down the line.

Still, even if players signed after reaching UFA years isn’t a prudent investment, it’s still worthwhile for teams to have recognizable faces if they’re trying to appeal to a few extra season ticket holders. Having Kovalchuk, Hossa, Chara and other stars in the game is generally quite good. If Kovalchuk is less effective next year than he was in the Devils’ Stanley Cup year, he’ll still be super-exciting for a long time, and for at least four years, he won’t be doing it in the NHL.

So my fundamental problem with salary cap recapture isn’t that the NHL is going to start penalizing teams that signed long-term deals retroactively, it’s more that salary cap recapture appears to be structured to get players to retire early or else they face a tonne of criticism for hurting their team’s salary cap situation. Look how much Kovalchuk would have cost the Devils in each season past this one:

Retires after… Recapture “Penalty”*
2012-13 $250,000.00
2013-14 $693,939.39
2014-15 $1,226,666.67
2015-16 $1,911,111.11
2016-17 $2,791,666.67
2017-18 $3,666,666.67
2018-19 $4,333,333.33
2019-20 $4,666,666.67
2020-21 $4,416,666.67
2021-22 $4,000,000.00
2022-23 $3,166,666.67
2023-24 $2,666,666.67
2024-25 $0.00

*counts per year against the cap until 2025-26. Is NOT money paid to Ilya Kovalchuk.

Remember when Bill Daly came out and said that long-term contracts were “the hill we will die on”? The funny thing is that for most of these contracts, it’s much better if the player retires sooner and leave more money and years on the table. If Roberto Luongo retires with four years left on his deal, the team is dinged over $4-million per season. If Luongo retires with six years left on his deal, the recapture cost is just $2.6-million per season.

And that’s the thing with Kovalchuk too. When these long deals to UFAs started getting signed, I don’t know how many people were under the impression that players would play them out until the end. It’s not that Hossa has a lack of honour by wanting to maximize his own payout and give the Blackhawks as much salary space as possible. If he retired now, the cap recapture would be $1.3-million per season through 2021. In 2017, once the money stops coming, the Blackhawks would get a $4.2-million penalty.

The thing is, the press likes to eviscerate players that don’t do things that would improve their current situation. Guys like Mats Sundin and Tomas Kaberle were killed in Toronto for not waiving their no-trade clauses at the right time. Roberto Luongo was killed in Vancouver for apparently limiting his options to Florida. I’m sure that by the time a 39-year-old Marian Hossa is limping around the ice making $1-million for a $5.275-million salary cap hit, a few national columnists may suggest that the Blackhawks would be better off if Hossa just straight up quit. I think hockey players sometimes hear those calls and want to do things to put their current squads in better situations. No matter the reasons for Kovalchuk’s departure, the Devils are much better off if he retired now than even if he did the same thing in five years. It’s insane.

It helps that Kovalchuk has a league to play in that wants to keep paying him money, and it sort of represents the problem the NHL is running into with the salary cap. There is enough money in North America to keep Kovalchuk around and kicking until he’s no longer marketable, but the NHL doesn’t want to let the Torontos and Philadelphias of the world spend to their heart’s content. Other major sports leagues in North America have the option of salary caps because it’s not like there are major European basketball or football associations with the money to attract Dwight Howard, but the KHL has drastically reduced the number of Russian players in the NHL, and how long until other nations follow, or how long until the KHL is able to permanently land a player like Ryan O’Reilly?

I’m of the belief that the NHL is better off with Ilya Kovalchuk and Roberto Luongo and Ryan O’Reilly in the NHL, and while I don’t have a problem with the fundamental idea of recapture, it’s poorly-designed and teams now benefit even less when an older, marketable player decides to try to slug it out for one more year.

Think the NHL’s brass truly cares about whether they have marketable stars in the league five years down the line, or are they more concerned with making it easier to find a buyer for the Devils?

UPDATE – @DrivingPlay points out that the NHLPA wasn’t against recapture. Fair to note that in the text above, I use the term “NHL” as an umbrella term for the league and its Player’s Association, neither of which I see as having helped hockey become a better spectator sport in the last two decades.

Contract information via Capgeek.