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Devils catch hell for Kovalchuk deal

That sound you heard on Monday afternoon was bodies falling into line when the NHL imposed sanctions on the New Jersey Devils for the cap-circumventing nature of the 17-year, $102 million contract that was first given to free agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk. For that little act of subterfuge, the league disallowed the deal, forced the Devils and Kovalchuk to come up with a kosher contract, and then, after approving the new arrangement (15 years, $100 million), fined the franchise $3 million in cash, plus the loss of two high draft picks.

New Jersey might have been hoping for a slap on the wrist. What they got was a two-hander to the back of the head.

And while the Devils are no doubt still woozy from the blow, they have to be feeling lucky that it wasn't worse.

That $3 million fine? Hardly chump change for a team that struggles to fill seats even at the shiny new Prudential Center. Plus, it was the maximum sanction the league could impose under an agreement forged by the NHL and NHLPA during the negotiations that followed the league's rejection of the first deal.

But at least the fine won't count against the cap. It could have under the CBA, but the agreement between the league and the players took that particular paddle out of the NHL's hands. For a team already looking to shed salary, that was a considerable break.

And while one of those picks will be a first-rounder (the other is a 2011 third-rounder), the Devils actually caught a bit of a break there, too. They get to choose from any of the next four years the draft during which they'll sit on their hands. And they don't have to inform the league of their decision until the day after the final Stanley Cup playoff game.

That small kindness gives GM Lou Lamoriello and his scouts a bit of leeway. Like what they see in a particular draft -- or get a few nibbles from another team that might like to make a deal for their pick -- and they stay in the game. Otherwise, they pull out when the pickings are at their slimmest. The guess here is that it'll happen sooner rather than later. It would be tough to be forced to the sidelines during a potentially stacked draft down the line because they waited too long to decide.

But make no mistake. This penalty makes life miserable for the Devils and puts considerable pressure on Kovalchuk to put on a cape and fly to work. Add that fine to the re-worked deal the league ultimately blessed, along with the players (Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier) and pick (a 2010 first-rounder) they surrendered to initially acquire Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers last February -- not to mention the contracts they'll have to dump, and replace, to fit his deal under the cap -- and it's clear that the Devils can't afford him to have too many off nights. At least not for the next 10 or so seasons of that 15-year contract.

No doubt Kovalchuk is an elite scorer, a highlight-generating puck wizard who will be become the face of the franchise once Martin Brodeur finally hangs up his pads. He's likely to score goals by the bunches. But was he really worth all that? It's hard to imagine the value received will ever live up to the price tag paid by the Devils. And *that* is the larger, if unspoken, point that was made here by a league that is still trying to gain control over salaries despite apparently winning that very power after the 2004-05 lockout.

The Devils are allowed to appeal the decision at today's Board of Governor's meeting, but they'll be hard-pressed to find much support. It's tough to imagine many other clubs wanting to draw attention to themselves -- certainly not teams like the Flyers, Bruins, Red Wings and Canucks who got away, barely, with similarly structured deals. So the Devils will just have to lick their wounds and limp away.

And hope against hope that somehow Kovalchuk will turn out to be worth all of this hell.