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Sympathy for the Devils: NHL softens team's Ilya Kovalchuk penalty

Lou Lamoriello and Ilya Kovalchuk The Devils have dodged a financial and draft bullet for their contract chicanery with Ilya Kovalchuk. (Getty Images)

By Allan Muir

Well, now we think we know why Lou Lamoriello didn't cough up the 29th overall draft pick in 2012.

The fix was already in.

What else are we supposed to read into today's asinine decision by the NHL to rescind two elements of the punishment it imposed on Lamoriello's New Jersey Devils for circumventing salary cap rules with a front-loaded 17-year contract for Ilya Kovalchuk in 2010?

The league sent a clear message that year by fining the Devils $3 million, and forcing them to forfeit a third round pick in 2011 as well as a first rounder in one of next four drafts, that it would not tolerate contracts tailored to unreasonably lessen cap hits late in the deal's term. It was a harsh sanction at the time, especially since there were no specific rules prohibiting that type of activity in the CBA, but it was widely applauded around the league because, hey, no one likes a chiseler, am I right?

And then, four years later, we get this. Today it was revealed that the league has rescinded $1.5 million of the fine and, instead of stripping that first rounder, it will now force the Devils to select 30th overall in the 2014 draft.

Really? What kind of Mickey Mouse decision is that?

The league's official release states that "the Devils recently (italics are mine) applied for reconsideration and relief from a portion of the original penalty, citing primarily changes in circumstances which, in the Club's view, changed the appropriateness of the sanctions initially imposed."

Essentially, the Devils wanted a break after Kovalchuk's retirement/defection to the KHL last July.

The response to that request should have been, "Tough luck." The penalty wasn't linked to Kovalchuk continuing to play. It was all about punishing a contract that was specifically constructed to flout the CBA. That offense didn't disappear when Kovalchuk decided that he'd rather eat mom's home cooking in Russia than play for a cellar dweller in the Garden State.

It's hard to imagine that this decision will sit well with the rest of the league -- not just because of how arbitrary it is or that everyone gets knocked down a slot from the second round on, but because it smells like a side agreement was in place well before this adjustment came to light.

When Lamoriello ended up with that 29th overall pick in 2012 as a result of New Jersey's Stanley Cup Final appearance, it was widely assumed that it would be the one he would forfeit. After all, the pick could hardly get any worse. So when he kept it and used it to take winger Stefan Matteau, a consensus second-round prospect, pundits were baffled. Matteau saw 17 games worth of action with the Devils last season and is now toiling at AHL Albany.

In terms of asset management, it seemed indefensible. The Devils then had to choose between coughing up the pick in 2013, when they were hosting the draft, or this year. But we all know that Lou hasn't gotten this far by being stupid. He ended up keeping his 2013 first rounder (ninth overall) ... and shrewdly swapped it to Vancouver in the trade for goalie Cory Schneider.

Which brings us to this year.

No one can say for certain whether Lou actually knew something was in the works then or not. Maybe he just played a long hunch, or got a really lucky break when the league decided to help out New Jersey's new ownership by sending the forfeited pick and half the cash back to the Devils. But there's no denying that today's reversal makes it look like the league has wimped out.

And that's why this stinks.
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