There was a loophole written into the NHL's current CBA, born of the discrepancy between salary and cap hit. Several teams -- including Vancouver, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia -- have barged through this eye of the needle with plenty of headroom to spare. And while the league harrumphed at these obvious attempts to massage the rules, ultimately the NHL approved some of the contracts that crushed the spirit but not the letter of the CBA.
Then the New Jersey Devils,
After giving its imprimatur to some, um, curious deals, the NHL finally balked at the 17-year, $102 million contract that the free-agent left winger signed with his former club this week. The money was front-loaded, as it always is in these cases, but this time the dollars fell precipitously off a cliff near the end of a deal that seemed longer than a congressional filibuster. Kovalchuk would receive a $550,000 salary for the final five seasons of the contract -- when he would be between 39 and 44 years old. The stench wafting from Newark across to the NHL offices in Manhattan was just too powerful to ignore.
If in their pursuit of a workable cap number the Devils and Kovalchuk had simply agreed to a 13- or 15-year deal that would have taken him to 40 or 42, the NHL surely would have grumbled and shrugged and said "OK" -- as it did in the case of
Kovalchuk's re-signing in New Jersey is not dead. It is merely in repose. Although not yet a
If you happen to be Devils president
Like a lenient parent, the NHL's previous tolerance for cap manipulation has moved, in a perfectly logical and possibly legal direction, to the Kovalchuk deal. The league had a chance to take a stand against
The other teams were doing 74 in a 65 mile-per-hour zone, but when the Devils did 76, NHL deputy commissioner
If there is not quite precedent for the Kovalchuk signing, there has been enough erosion of principles that probably places Lamoriello on the right side of the issue. This was not a 40-year deal that was going to take Kovalchuk into rarefied
As Lamoriello observed on Tuesday when Kovalchuk was reintroduced in New Jersey, it is possible that contracts such as this will disappear when the current CBA expires after the 2011-12 season. Certainly the NHL would want to close this practice down although it seems to work in the interests of star players and, for those willing to try the gambit, teams. The obvious fix, if it is indeed a problem, is to make salary and cap hit the same number, presuming a salary cap is part of the next CBA. Like everything else, this will have to be bargained.
But a formula for what the NHL now views with alarm was encoded from the start. Yes, there is some soft language in the agreement that proscribes circumventing the CBA, but teams and agents had more than enough wiggle room.
Now in the Kovalchuk case, it's too much. But it's also too late.