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Campbell's Cuts: Kings avoid potential salary cap disaster by missing out on Kovalchuk

Ilya Kovalchuk's deal with New Jersey is for 17 years worth $102 million. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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Ilya Kovalchuk's deal with New Jersey is for 17 years worth $102 million. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

One member of the Los Angeles Kings management team wondered how the top executives would be feeling today. No doubt GM Dean Lombardi and his lieutenants are a little on the glum side. After all, they missed out on a player some are describing as the best unrestricted free agent in history.

But the sun will rise again, as it always does in Southern California, even if it sometimes does behind a cloudy haze. And when it does, the Kings will be able to pick themselves up and dust themselves off knowing they stood by their convictions and did all the right things.

Even if it meant missing out on Ilya Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk signed with the New Jersey Devils Monday for 17-years worth $102 million (a contract rejected by the NHL Tuesday, on the grounds it circumvented the salary cap). The Kings, meanwhile, were reportedly willing to go as high at $64 million for 12 years.

The fact is, the Kings wanted Kovalchuk badly, just not badly enough to blow their brains out and potentially compromise their roster for the next decade. And, by golly, isn’t that a breath of fresh air? Kovalchuk wanted the Kings badly, just not badly enough to turn down an offer that was much better financially. And don’t forget, it’s not as though Kovalchuk spurned L.A. for the New York Islanders here. The Devils are a perennial contender, so any accusations Kovalchuk simply chased the money are ludicrous.

The salary cap can legislate against some things, but it unfortunately cannot put the brakes on the kinds of grandiose notions some hockey executives get when their passion and competitiveness usurps their common sense. We’ve seen it time and again over the past five years and we’ll undoubtedly continue to see it regardless of what kinds of spending controls are put in place.

From the time Lombardi took over the Kings’ hockey department four years ago, he has maintained the club would be built properly. If the Kings were going to get star power, it was going to come from within. Los Angeles would be fiscally responsible, build through the draft and develop players at a reasonable pace.

And it’s very tempting and easy to dispense with that kind of logic when a talent such as Kovalchuk comes along. Some people pay lip service to building through the draft, then look at their roster and, for example, deal two first round picks for a 40-goal scorer who might not make the roster appreciably better.

Kudos to Lombardi for not getting sucked into that way of thinking. The Kings had their price and were not willing to exceed it, even when Kovalchuk held firm on his financial demands – something he’s fully entitled to do as a UFA, by the way.

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And why wouldn’t Kovalchuk choose New Jersey’s offer over the one presented to him by the Kings? The 17-year contract guarantees he’ll be making an average of $5.88 million a season until he’s 44.

Los Angeles’ offer, by contrast, would have paid him an average of $5.33 million for 12 years. But the Kings are not the Devils. They’re a young team on the rise and young teams on the rise have to plan prudently if they want to stay successful. Over the next year, the Kings will have to sign Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds to new deals and an exorbitant amount of money and/or term on the books would have affected their ability to do that. At the best of times, contracts like Kovalchuk’s are hard to move. That becomes downright impossible if things go south.

And what would they have received in return? They would have added a two-time 50-goal scorer and a consistent offensive threat who undoubtedly would have helped them in the short term. But how often have these kinds of big-money, long-term signings resulted in the new team getting a player who leads them to a Stanley Cup? Anyone? Anyone?

That’s not to say the Devils aren’t getting themselves a great player. Kovalchuk has the potential to be a lights-out offensive talent and there’s little to suggest he doesn’t have the makeup to be a well-rounded player if he’s held accountable for his play. And you want to talk about star power? Go to a Devils game during the first half of the season on a Tuesday night and look at all the empty seats.

With the talent and potential the Kings have, selling tickets probably won’t be as big a problem for them for the next couple of years. But the Kovalchuk signing, as constituted, had the potential to cause all sorts problems in the long run.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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