|The deadline for the NHL to decide whether or not to accept Ilya Kovalchuk's latest contract with the New Jersey Devils has been extended until Friday. (MICHAEL BUHOLZER/Reuters)
The Ilya Kovalchuk waiting game continues with an increasing risk the NHL could lose one of its best players.
With a threat the free-agent winger will bolt for the Kontinental Hockey League in his native Russia if the NHL doesn't accept his 15-year, $100-million US contract with the New Jersey Devils, the league and players' union have moved the deadline to agree to or reject the deal to Friday.
League sources say they're not sure why Wednesday's 5 p.m. deadline was extended, but Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reported that incoming union head Donald Fehr may have held talks with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to get the situation resolved.
The Devils and Kovalchuk were forced to go back to the drawing board after arbitrator Richard Bloch threw out a front-end-loaded 17-year, $102-million deal last month.
Bloch sided with the NHL, which argued that deal circumvented the salary cap. Kovalchuk would have made the vast majority of the money in the first 11 years, then had his salary fall below $1 million in the final years of the contract to allow for an annual cap hit of $6 million.
Now there's a belief Bettman is concerned that one of the league's premier players could jump ship.
"We remain confident that the terms of this contract comply with the CBA and meet both the NHL's concerns and the principles of (Bloch's) decision," said Devils GM Lou Lamoriello in a statement.
"We remain optimistic that this extension will result in an approval of the contract and that Ilya Kovalchuk will remain a valuable member of the Devils for the balance of his career."
League sources say the Kovalchuk decision isn't "just about him" because "the structure of the contract is going to go a long way in deciding what is going to happen with the other deals being investigated."
The NHL is still studying the contracts of Philly's Chris Pronger, Chicago's Marian Hossa, Boston's Marc Savard and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo. All have payouts similar to the way Kovalchuk is supposed to receive his money.
The NHL has been "investigating" most of the other deals for more than a year, but hasn't been getting any co-operation from the union nor the agents who negotiated them. That's why there's a sense the Kovalchuk decision is taking time.
Neither side wants this to be an issue in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement.
"There is something bigger at work here," said one league executive. "Perhaps they want to get all these deals resolved at once, so that the league and the players can put all this uncertainty behind them."
If -- and when -- the Kovalchuk deal is approved, the Devils will have to shed salary to get under the salary cap. The club has been shopping defenceman Bryce Salvadore and forward Dainius Zubrus. Some teams have called about forward Travis Zajac.
Zubrus, 32, who has a cap hit of $3.4 million and Salvadore, 34 ($2.9 million), are both marketable commodities. Zajac ($3.888 million) is 25 with plenty of potential. It doesn't make sense for the Devils to move him at this point.
It also doesn't make sense to allow the Kovalchuk situation to fester, according to a high-profile agent.
"I have a hard time believing that if they've asked for an extension, they're not going to get something done," said the agent. "They can't allow this to drag on much longer. Both sides want it settled."