Kovalchuk contract fiasco

DAVE FULLER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:16 AM ET

The NHL Players' Association officially filed a grievance on behalf of Ilya Kovalchuk Monday, pretty much assuring the Russian hockey sensation will be a New Jersey Devil -- if not by the end of the week, then shortly after.

The problem for the NHL, which sought to annul this marriage, claiming the Devils circumvented the collective bargaining agreement by front-loading his 17-year, $102-million US contract to a laughable degree, is that they clearly did not.

Devils president Lou Lamoriello may have trampled on the "spirit of the CBA," but when your team ranks in the bottom third of the NHL in attendance in one of the most populated places on Earth -- never mind that nearly-new arena -- you sometimes bend the rules.

Having proven year in and out that winning teams playing boring hockey equals thousands of empty seats, Lamoriello, this time, chose the convertible instead of the sedan.

He's not the first team executive to ram a controversial contract through this well-publicized loophole in the CBA. See Vancouver and Roberto Luongo, Chicago and Marian Hossa, Philadelphia and Chris Pronger, Detroit and Henrik Zetterberg.

In each case, those teams extended the length of the contract to improbable lengths in order to create more salary cap room.

Since the annual cap hit for each player is his "average salary" over the length of the contract, the Devils aren't fooling anyone. Nor were they trying to.

So, while Kovalchuk will earn an average $10.24 million over each of the first seven years of his deal, the cap hit is more like $6 million. That's because he'll be making something like $550,000 -- minimum wage, baby -- in the final five years of the contract.

Of course, he'll be 44 by the end of it, and likely long retired.

Lamoriello? He'll be 85, and probably retired, too. If Devils ownership allows it.

Here's the thing. While Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, may be furious with Lamoriello, one can only imagine how pissed Lamoriello's bosses would have been had Kovalchuk walked -- signing with Los Angeles, or worse, the New York Rangers.

The Devils president was only playing it smart -- again. A few other teams might take heed.

In Ottawa, for instance, Jason Spezza has five years left on a straight-forward deal which pays him $7 million a year. The Senators annual cap hit on Spezza is exactly that: $7 million a year.

Which player would you rather have on your team? And if it's Kovalchuk, your cap hit is a million less.

Of course, even if the Devils get their man, the strategy could blow up later. Teams giving obscene contracts to players -- and especially unpredictable Russian players -- sometimes live to regret their largesse.

Kovalchuk may be a great player, but no one we know of thinks he's a great leader.

"You can't build a team with that much money going to one guy," one Western conference executive said recently. "Plus, if you ask for that much money, clearly winning is not a priority for you."

While grievances relating to contracts are, by agreement, to be settled promptly, the NHL and the NHLPA have yet to agree on an arbitrator. Part of the problem is the union leadership is still a bit wobbly, having failed to annoint a new executive director.

However, Donald Fehr, who ran Major League baseball's players association for 27 years, is very much a part of the hockey union, working as a primary consultant.

You can bet that Fehr knows what to do.

KABERLE ACTION

The Columbus Blue Jackets could up the ante in their pursuit of Leafs Tomas Kaberle if they lose their salary arbitration battle with Anton Stralman.

The case is scheduled for Wednesday in Toronto. Stralman figures he's worth something in the $3-million range -- about $1 million more than the Jackets want to pay him.

Should Columbus walk away, they'll need someone to quarterback the powerplay and Kaberle fits the bill.

The Leafs have until Aug. 15 to trade Kaberle before his no-trade clause kicks in.

dave.fuller@sunmedia.ca


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