Bloch proved himself capable not only of recognizing the obvious, but acting with a level head when he ruled that the NHL was justified in rejecting the 17-year, $102-million deal negotiated last month by free agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils. As a result, the 27-year-old sniper is back on the market and up for grabs...presumably for a shorter term and fewer dollars.
A surprising victory for a league that doesn't win many against its players? Sure was...and it may not be the last.
Most observers, this one included, presumed the grievance filed by the NHLPA, and not the NHL's objection to the deal, would carry the day. Not that it wasn't clear that the front-loaded accord was designed specifically to contravene the salary cap by lowering the annual hit but, as the PA noted in its complaint, similar contracts had been registered in the past. A pretty flimsy defense, but honestly, what else were they going to say about an agreement that was a scarcely disguised bird flip to the Collective Bargaining Agreement?
But Bloch displayed his clearheadedness in his ruling, writing that Kovalchuk's contract had the effect of "defeating or circumventing the salary cap provisions" of the CBA by extending "well beyond the typical retirement age for NHL players."
No kidding. You don't even need both hands to count the number of athletes in the league's history whose career has lasted as long as the ripe old age of 44 that Kovalchuk will be when his deal expires. There have only been eight. Another five made it as far as 43.
And while defenders of the deal have argued that no one knows what sort of competitive fire burns in a player's heart, the odds of Kovalchuk sticking around to cash the $550,000 cheques he will be due over the last five years of the deal were about as long as the chances of Brian Burke using a first-rounder to draft a figure skater.
There was also the matter of a no-move clause morphing into a less restrictive no-trade clause over those last five years, essentially allowing the Devils a chance to bury a less productive Kovalchuk in the deal's twilight zone. Hard to imagine that likelihood was accepted by the player without a knowing wink.
Still, there was something to what the PA said, right? The fact that so many similar deals had been rubber-stamped by the NHL with nothing more than some Jackie Gleason-esque under the breath muttering seemed to present a Lincoln Tunnel-sized loophole through which this grievance would be driven. Not only was that route blocked, but Bloch appears to brought out scissors capable of snipping the cords on the recent golden parachute deals given to Chris Pronger, Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo and Marc Savard.
"While [those] contracts have in fact been registered, their structure has not escaped league notice," Bloch wrote. "Those players' contracts are being investigated currently with at least the possibility of a subsequent withdrawal of the registration."
Now, that was unexpected.
And this is where things will really start to get interesting. While unlikely, the precedent set by this decision means there's a chance that those deals require some reworking. That creates the potential for more headaches for Chicago GM Stan Bowman, who already has taken a scalpel to his championship club, and it could set up some challenges for his counterparts in Philadelphia and Vancouver. On the other hand, it might not be such a bad thing for the Bruins, who wouldn't mind a free pass out from under Savard's deal if it helped solve some of their own financial issues.
But that remains up in the air, for now anyway. The more pressing matter is Kovalchuk's immediate fate. Before the ruling, a number of sources thought a re-worked deal with the Devils would be the likely result if Bloch ruled in favor of the NHL. The team confirmed as much in a statement issued afterwards.
"While we do not currently have a contract with Ilya Kovalchuk, discussions have resumed and we are hopeful that a contract will be reached that meets with the principles in arbitrator Bloch's award and meets the NHL's approval," said GM Lou Lamoriello.
The Kings, rebuffed in previous efforts, might consider another run at Kovalchuk, but their level of interest -- or more accurately, their financial wherewithal -- may have changed since their recent signing Alexei "Plan C" Ponikarovsky to a two-year deal worth $3.2 million.
SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL also re-emerges as a serious option. No doubt they can present a staggering offer unfettered by a salary cap. But will Kovalchuk be stung enough by this rejection to give up his clear preference for playing in the NHL to return home for a slightly larger paycheck? Probably not, but this case already has taken stranger turns...