After years of harrumphing about (but ultimately approving) contracts that did not make a total mockery of the collective bargaining agreement but assuredly did stick out their tongues a little -- the Marian Hossa and Chris Pronger deals, among others -- the NHL belatedly put its foot down.
Surprisingly, at least to our way of thinking, an arbitrator ruled the NHL did have a leg to stand on.
Ilya Kovalchuk is a free man yet again although he seemed deliriously happy to have been indentured last month to the New Jersey Devils after signing a 17-year, $102 million nudge-nudge, wink-wink contract that would -- in theory, anyway -- have him skating the wing in Newark for the relatively modest sum of $550,000 at the advanced age of 44. The back end of the contract plummeted so precipitously -- only $3.5 million of that $102 million was to be paid in the final six years -- that the arbitrator, Richard Bloch, apparently surmising that neither the left winger nor the team truly planned to honor the deal, viewed it as a circuitous route around the CBA's salary cap and ruled in the NHL's favor.
In truth, the Devils had done nothing that other teams like Detroit (Henrik Zetterberg, for example) or Vancouver (Roberto Luongo) hadn't done. They just had done it bigger, longer and bolder. They had been audacious to the point of recklessness in reducing what should have been a salary cap hit of $8 million-plus for Kovalchuk down to a more manageable $6 million. Devils president Lou Lamoriello, a Hall of Fame builder who is among the shrewdest executives in sports, then basically double-dared the NHL by holding a news conference to announce the deal even though it had not been approved by a league that he surely knew would be giving the contract a hairy eyeball.
This whole affair seemed so un-Devils like. Maybe Lamoriello, a grand admirer of the Montreal Canadiens dynasty teams, was just trying to emulate the late Sam Pollock and pull a fast one to the advantage of his club. If there was another angle, something deeper -- like a second-story man who simply wants to get caught -- well, I'm not smart enough to figure it out.
But certainly the Kovalchuk contract case made for some strange bedfellows. The Players Association took up the player's -- and the Devils' -- cause by filing a grievance, which kicked off the proceedings that led to the decision Monday. So now we know: lions and lamb will lie down together.
Given Kovalchuk's effusiveness at the initial news conference about his apparent home until 2027, it would be a surprise if agent Jay Grossman and Lamoriello don't try to rework a contract that would meet NHL specs. Apparently Kovalchuk was impressed by the professionalism of the New Jersey organization after he came from Atlanta last spring, hardly surprising given the chaotic nature of the Thrashers' ownership situation. The 27-year-old free agent would look hypocritical if he suddenly signed with, say, Los Angeles, which expressed serious interest in his free-agent services last month. Like a trip to the barber, a little off the back and a trim around the years would make it no less flamboyant than some of the other push-the-envelope contracts for this cinch 40-goal scorer.
Surely the NHL will work to tighten the language after the CBA expires in 2012. While many people viewed the league's new hard-line stance on the Kovalchuk contract as the first skirmish in the next negotiations, sometimes a cigar is just a smoke and a contract that plays faster and looser with the CBA than any of its predecessors is simply that.
The reason teams offer these kinds of contracts: they seem to work. The Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup final behind Chris Pronger, who, a nightmarish Game 5 against Chicago excepted, had a Conn Smythe-worthy playoffs. And the Blackhawks, of course, ended a Cup drought that had lasted way longer than any contract with the help of Hossa's generally sharp two-way play.
Anyway, this story isn't over. Kovalchuk will need a re-written contract or, horrors, a new team. And the NHL can muss up the Devils a little with sanctions, if it so chooses. See, there are second acts in Russian lives.