Kovalchuk decision sets precedent?

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:09 AM ET

The door has been closed on Ilya Kovalchuk’s shamefully front-loaded contract, but in the process has opened up the possibility of having a handful of similar contracts reviewed — and possibly nixed — by the league.

A player agent told QMI Agency that in the midst of arbitrator Richard Bloch’s 20-page ruling striking down Kovalchuk’s 17-year, $102 million US deal there is a suggestion perhaps deals like the ones previously approved for Chris Pronger, Marian Hossa and Roberto Luongo were ratified by the NHL with “an asterisk.”

“The arbitrator didn’t close the door on a handful of other contracts that have extensive ‘dive-back’,” said the agent, citing the term Bloch used to describe the final five years of the Kovalchuk deal at a mere $550,000.

“He indicated they apparently were ratified with an asterisk. That said, my understanding is they’re registered unless the league somehow decides to use this case.”

Whether it will remains to be seen.

Many in the hockey world — especially agents — were surprised by Bloch’s ruling yesterday, which wasn’t made public. However, the source confirmed the ruling was made based not on a specific contravention of the CBA, but via its general circumvention provisions. The ruling cited three things, according to the agent, that combined to ensure the deal didn’t stand up to the smell test:

• The five-year “dive-back” at $550,000 to round out a deal that pays the player an average of $9.5 million annually the first 10 years.

• Around that same time the contract was structured to goes from a “no move” to a “no trade,” opening the door for the player to be sent to the minors.

• The fact Kovalchuk will be 44 at the completion of the deal.

Bloch went on to cite the fact only six players have played past age 42 in the last 20 years, adding to the argument the Devils and Kovalchuk had little intention of seeing the deal through to its completion date of 2027. The concern with all of it, of course, is that by extending Kovalchuk’s deal for the additional five seasons at $550,000 apiece the salary cap hit would be reduced to a manageable $6 million a year — an artificial number given the likelihood of early retirement.

Kovalchuk and his agent, Jay Grossman, weren’t the first to push the envelope with such thinking. In the last few years, the league has not rejected front-end loaded deals that see the salary cap hit diminished by adding additional years at relatively low pay.

Chicago signed Marian Hossa to a 12-year, $62.8 million pact that averages less than $1 million a year the final four seasons. It expires when he’s 42.

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo has a $63-million, 12-year deal that pays $7 million over the final four seasons and takes him to age 43.

Pronger’s seven-year, $35 million deal pays him $5.5 million over the last three years, taking him to age 41.

Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings have similar contracts.

On Monday, the NHLPA expressed its disappointment with the Kovalchuk ruling, the NHL’s Bill Daly felt vindicated, and the Devils insist they’ll move forward trying to sign another deal with the 27-year-old who has won one playoff game in his career.

Bloch suggested provisions in the CBA to heavily fine and/or suspend players, agents and organizations who attempt the circumvent the CBA were not applicable as he felt there was no bad faith involved.

Surprised by the ruling, another player agent said he’d be “shocked” if the league moved to try nixing previously approved deals like ones signed by Hossa, Luongo et al.

“It’ll be harder for the league to say ‘yes, we registered that deal and let them play under it for a year, but now…’” said the agent, familiar with such deals.

“I don’t worry about it.”

Maybe he should.

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca


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