The Kovalchuk Affair: A Rant

Posted: March 3, 2011 in Hockey, Sports
Tags: , , , , , ,

My confidence never wavered.

First it was the fifteen-year, $100 million contract.  Next it was the awful start to the season with the worst plus/minus on the worst team in the league.  And with each of those things came the whispers of “He’s overrated, I would never have given him that contract,” “He’s not a team player,” or “Only players like Crosby or Ovechkin should make that kind of money.”

But I never lost confidence in the fact that Ilya Kovalchuk is a top-tier NHL player on par with the Crosbys and Ovechkins.  I never lost confidence in Kovalchuk’s ability to be a team player.  Now that both Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils are in the midst of an 11-game points streak and an 8-game win streak respectively, my confidence is being rewarded.

So now the question remains: why did Kovalchuk and the Devils start the season so slowly?

The answer is simple: Gary Bettman and the league administration got in the way and disrupted the preparations of both the team and the player.

Every NHL player and every NHL team go through a lot of preparation for each prospective season.  From the moment a player is signed to the moment the first puck drops in October is all about preparing for the upcoming season.  Every moment is vital and any disruption has the potential to affect a player’s performance during the season.

So when Kovalchuk resigned with the Devils on July 19th for 17 years and $102 million both sides thought it was time to get down to business: Kovalchuk was the last piece in the Devils’ puzzle and Kovalchuk had a contract that fit his desire to finish his career in New Jersey.

However, it was not to be as the very next day Gary Bettman and the league voided Kovalchuk’s contract, claiming that it circumvented the league’s salary cap.  What ensued was a two-month struggle, including an independent arbitrator, that left both Kovalchuk and the Devils without any certainty going into the new season.

By the time the Kovalchuk contract saga was resolved, with the aforementioned 15 year and $100 million deal, it was September 4th which left just 17 days before the Devils’ first preseason game on September 21st.

Any NHL team will tell you that 17 days is not long enough to prepare for a new season, especially when you consider that the Devils had to figure out how best to utilize Kovalchuk and Zach Parisse, another top left winger.

As you might expect, the Devils’ season didn’t start well and neither did Kovalchuk’s.

You might wonder at this point why I point the finger firmly in the direction of Gary Bettman and the league.  “They’re just doing their job to make sure everyone plays by the rules,” you might say and to a certain extent you’d be right.

But the league administration went much farther than just policing the 30 teams and keeping them in line with the Collective Bargaining Agreement.  After all, Bettman and his cronies let the Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers, and Chicago Blackhawks sign Roberto Luongo, Chris Pronger, and Marian Hossa respectively to similar contracts in the past two or three seasons without a hint of voiding any of those contracts.

These contracts, including the one signed by Kovalchuk, feature a largely front-loaded structure whereby the player is paid a hefty sum in the first few years of the contract and by the end of the contract – usually when the player is over 40 years old – paying the player near the league minimum.  While the number teams pay against the cap is calculated as an average amount over the entire length of the contract, this structure provides a few benefits to teams looking to protect themselves in the future.

First off, by extending the length of the contract, teams are able to lower the cap hit attached to the player even though they will likely actually be paying them more than the cap number.  This allows teams to spend more money on other players and build an all-round better team.  Secondly, this structure allows teams to buy out these players at the end of their contracts at minimal cost to the team.  The cost for a team to buy a player out is a percentage of the remaining salary to be paid to the player.  Therefore, a player who is only owed $2 million is much cheaper to buy out than a player owed $20 million.

The key to this situation lies in the fact that Kovalchuk’s contract will make him the highest paid player in the league from 2012-2017.  At the peak of that period—during the 2016-2017 season—he will make almost $2 million more than any other NHL player.  With Kovalchuk’s original 17 year contract, that number would likely have been higher.

This fact directly contradicts Bettman’s approach to promoting and popularizing the league.  Since the end of the lockout, Bettman has set his stock by two players: Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.  They feature in most NHL promotional materials and, as some would argue, get treated differently by referees and league disciplinarians.

It would make sense then that when these players are in their prime years—25-30 years old—between 2012 and 2017 that they be the highest paid players in the league.  For it to be otherwise would say that there are other players who are more valuable, which can be translated to mean better.

The NFL understands this principle, which is why quarterbacks are the highest paid players, and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning the richest among quarterbacks.

Kovalchuk’s contract represents a threat to Bettman’s stable order and this is why I blame Bettman and the league for Kovalchuk and the Devils’ slow start to the season.  Without this threat, Bettman wouldn’t have the motivation to void Kovalchuk’s contract, since he didn’t void similar contracts in the past.

Without Bettman’s antics, we would have seen a vastly different Ilya Kovalchuk and New Jersey Devils to start the season.

**All player salaries and contract information courtesy of**


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