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For Devils, it's about winning now

There was one factor, and one factor only, that tempered the incredulity I experienced after learning that the New Jersey Devils had won the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes and that they'd given him 17 years and $102 million to seal the deal: the involvement of Lou Lamoriello.

Good, ol' Lou. A man who is as sensible as a pair of Buster Browns. At this point, any deal orchestrated by New Jersey's veteran GM deserves an instant passing grade. Not that he doesn't make mistakes (Vladimir Malakhov, come on down!). Lamoriello just doesn't make the big ones, and so he's earned that bit of grace. After all, this is the guy who has more skins on the wall than Jame Gumb, the psycho in The Silence of the Lambs. If you're counting off the league's top GMs on your fingers, you won't need more than one hand before you get to Lou's name. The man has built three Stanley Cup champions (1995, 2000, 2003), several legitimate contenders, and his teams have missed the playoffs just once in the past 20 seasons. He's knows a little something about winning.

But as the dust has settled after the Kovalchuk news first broke, something's become abundantly clear: This wasn't Lou's deal. And that should tell all the head-scratchers out there that they were right. Lou isn't crazy enough to come up with a contract like this: 17 years at $102 million. Not even the NHL thinks so, and dropped the hammer, nixing the contract on the grounds that it constitutes and attempt to dodge the salary cap.

The ultimate fate of the deal will be decided shortly, buIt was some nice work by Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record to get Lamoriello to all but admit that the contract was not his doing.

"The commitment that ownership has made here, this is a commitment and a decision they wanted to make for this type of a player and all I can do is say whether the player is a player that will fit into the team, can help the team and is not a risk as a player," Lamoriello told the paper. "As far as what the financial commitment is and that aspect of it, that was out of my hands."

In other words, I like him -- I traded for him back in March, after all -- but don't try to blame me for this silliness. And when it inevitably rears up and starts strangling the team financially, do me a favor and remember that it wasn't my idea.

You don't have to read between the lines to get what Lou is saying: the fingerprints on the neck of the Devils that will be left by this contract can be traced to his boss, Jeff Vanderbeek.

Vanderbeek, who was named the second-best owner in the NHL by this very site just over a year ago, bought the team outright in 2004 after spending four seasons in a minority role. Apparently playoff success wasn't a defining metric in that piece. Since he's been at the helm, the Devils have won four Atlantic Division titles ... but have been unceremoniously swept from the postseason in the first round each of the past three seasons. He's also seen the Prudential Center, the fine new building that opened in 2007, draw the sort of crowds you'd expect at a Vanilla Ice show, and that isn't doing much to improve the team's bottom line.

And, with the team's one true superstar, Martin Brodeur, edging perilously close to the end, something had to give. Apparently, that something was any semblance of financial self restraint that Vanderbeek might have possessed.

Clearly, the Devils ain't what they used to be. So maybe Vanderbeek sees the Kovalchuk deal, and the long-term betrothal to the even more important Zach Parise that will follow, as the ultimate signs of good faith. A step not just toward short-term success, but boldly taken into the impending post-Brodeur era when Vanderbeek is going to have to find a way to sell tickets. And whatever his shortcomings may be, Kovalchuk has the ability to dial up the excitement in a way that no Devil other than Brodeur ever has. At a time when stars are becoming more important than systems in this league, grabbing one of the brightest makes some fiscal sense.

So, from a business perspective, you see where Vanderbeek is coming from. In that world, you you have to spend money to make money, and he opened up his wallet in a way that few others have the temerity to do. He also tried to get the cap hit down to a manageable $6 million per season -- not bad for a top-five goal scorer and a sum that left plenty of room to get Parise inked. No doubt, Vanderbeek is probably feeling pretty clever right now.

But it all comes back to that whopping term -- 17 years sounds more like a jail sentence than a sporting contract, doesn't it? -- and what it'll mean to this team down the road. And it's hard to see this ending well, no matter when Kovalchuk hangs 'em up.

At 67, Lamoriello probably isn't too concerned. The Kovalchuk noose will be around someone else's neck before long. And neither is Vanderbeek, who clearly sees a window of championship opportunity that could come to a close when the 38-year-old Brodeur's contract expires in two years. Winning now is the only thing that matters.

At least, that better be his thinking. Because if we've learned anything from the contracts given to Rick DiPietro, Brian Campbell and others, it's that they can be tolerated for a couple of years. Snagging one of the game's marquee players might feel good now, but the honeymoon is likely to be very, very short.

You have to hand it to Paul Holmgren. Say what you will about the Flyers GM's methods, the man has a way of making the most of his assets.

He's aggressive. He's shrewd. And he rarely gets outfoxed. That reputation remains intact even after Monday's apparently lopsided trade of veteran sniper Simon Gagne to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

True, Holmgren didn't net much in the way of physical return in the swap -- borderline defender Matt Walker and a fourth round pick in next year's draft. But this was a well executed "soft deal," one that's intended not to bring back value on the ice, but valuable cap space. By moving Gagne, Holmgren cleared $5.2 million off the books -- at least, if Walker's $1.75 million contract is buried with the AHL's Phantoms, as expected.

Admittedly, Holmgren had painted himself into a corner after committing to several new contracts over the past two weeks, including defender AndreiMeszaros, skill forward NikolaiZherdev and redundant enforcer JodyShelley. But you don't make deals like those without an exit strategy, and for Holmgren that meant asking Gagne to waive his no trade clause.

That might have been insulting to the popular and still productive Gagne, but it worked out just fine for him after he used his contractual clout to pick his preferred landing spot after 10 seasons in Philly.

"Tampa Bay was the team that was really interesting to myself and that's when we started talking to [Steve Yzerman] and were able to make something happen with them," Gagne said afterward. "I was willing to waive my no-trade clause only for Tampa Bay, not for other teams."

Health permitting, the 30-year-old Gagne moves into a top-six role with what should be an exciting and rejuvenated team in Tampa Bay. Good for him.

It also worked out extremely well for rookie GM Yzerman, who leapt at the chance to pick up a potential impact player for the proverbial bag of pucks. Gagne has battled injuries the past couple campaigns, but few forwards have a nose for the net like he does. Just check out the highlights of the Flyers' playoff series against Boston to see the kind of damage he's capable of inflicting. Yzerman has to be grinning imagining Gagne alongside VincentLecavalier or StevenStamkos.

But just because Tampa Bay appears to have won doesn't mean that Philly lost. Ultimately, this deal should reveal itself as another savvy move by Holmgren. You can argue that Gagne was a bird in hand compared to a wild card like Zherdev, but this was about the big picture. Gagne would have been difficult, if not impossible, to re-sign next summer. Moving in the cheaper Zherdev and freeing up the cap space that could be the difference at the trade deadline between acquiring that final playoff piece and having to stand pat is a smart play. Whether all the pieces fall into place and his scheming pays off remains to be seen, but you can't fault Holmgren's logic.

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