Oh to be a fly on the wall when Ilya Kovalchuk's case is put before an arbitrator.
Sadly, there's no guarantee it will, although a hearing remains possible in the aftermath of the NHL rejecting his 17-year, $102 million contract.
I'm thinking it would be a lot of fun to see.
Can you picture the arbitrator's eyes rolling around as he listens to the league argue that Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils deked their way around the salary cap and violated the intent, rather than the actual letter, of the collective bargaining agreement? Or when the Devils counter by claiming they simply followed the lead of several other teams that have done similar things in recent years and gotten away with it?
|Ilya Kovalchuk may have to wait a while longer, but eventually should finalize a contract with the Devils. (Getty Images)|
In the meantime, there's a problem to be fixed, because the Devils went to the extreme with their heavily front-loaded offer to Kovalchuk. And because the league has previously approved conceptually similar "lifer" deals it has not been thrilled with to players like Alex Ovechkin, Robert Luongo, Marian Hossa and Henrik Zetterberg. And still everyone appears to be playing by the rules.
The problem here, though, is the deal lasts 17 years, and by then the Devils will be scouting kids not even born yet. We are told that number means something to Kovalchuk, who has always worn No. 17 as a tribute to the legendary Russian hockey star Valeri Kharlamov. And at his news conference, Kovalchuk made a point of noting that the decision to accept New Jersey's offer came on the fourth anniversary of his father's death.
"It was a couple of days ago, on July 17, it's kind of weird," he said.
It's just not as weird as the fact the deal ends when the player is 44 and drops its payments to next to nothing near the end. The way the deal was set up, Kovalchuk, now 27, would have earned $95 million in the first 10 years. A buyout for the Devils after that would mean paying two-thirds of the remaining contract over double its remaining life, in other words $50,000 of fun money for Kovalchuk for the following 14 years.
It was such a blatant way for New Jersey to stay within the annual cap hit provisions while circumventing them, it couldn't help but force a strong response from the league with CBA bargaining around the corner.
Remember, Donald Fehr is waiting in the wings to represent the players at the table. The former baseball players union boss hasn't committed yet, but he has been consulting for the NHLPA for several months, and after spending three days meeting with the players' rank and file last week in Toronto, all indications are he will. Imagine the fireworks if the league tries to get technically legal contracts restricted on Fehr's watch.
In the meantime, the Devils and Kovalchuk will likely try to renegotiate terms that are more palatable to the league. They both want to get this done, although it's ironic that New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello, one of the most respected figures in hockey, has long been a leading proponent of fiscal sanity when it comes to contract values and terms.
But this deal was one owners Jeff Vanderbeek and Mike Gilfillan signed off on, so at the news conference, Lamoriello was in the position of having to defend it, saying it made sense for the organization because of the unique circumstances.
"Fortunately Mr. Vanderbeek and Mr. Gilfillan. can make this type of decision, I certainly could not," Lamoriello said. "I still firmly believe that it's all about the team, and in conversations with Mr. Vanderbeek, with free agency at the age that it's at, this was an opportunity for our organization to get a player of the caliber we've never had that opportunity to draft.
"We've been fortunate with players we have drafted and had success with, but these opportunities don't come around very often. Whether it's an exception or norm, I don't look at anything like that. That's the decision at hand."
It's a decision, he conceded, made with a bigger picture in mind.
"We just built a tremendous facility here and they have made a commitment to winning," Lamoriello said. "We're in a big market."
It's one where having a marquee player is actually good for both the team and the league. But this is a test of wills, although chances it will end up restructured in a way that lets everyone hold their noses enough to make it work without getting into the hands of a third party.