NHL eases punishment on Devils for Ilya Kovalchuk contract

Ilya Kovalchuk

In 2010, the New Jersey Devils did their best to circumvent the spirit of salary cap rules by signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a ridiculous 17-year, $102 million contract. The Blackhawks and Canucks had attempted something similar with Marian Hossa and Roberto Luongo and the Red Wings did it with two of their own players, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. Each of them were signed for more than a decade to bring down the cap hit.

But the deal the Devils struck with Kovalchuk, the NHL arbitrarily decided, went too far. It made a joke of the last few years of a deal Kovalchuk never would have played out. So the league stepped in, supported by a ruling from an independent arbitrator that the Devils were indeed skirting the rules, and fined New Jersey $3 million, a third round pick and the forfeiture of a first round pick from one of the next four drafts. The Devils kept or traded the pick for the first three years, so this year they would have been without it.

That is, until today. The NHL decided to lighten the punishment by refunding half the $3 million fine and allowing the Devils to pick 30th overall this summer, no matter their finish. Though they aren’t allowed to trade that pick, it’s a much better situation for the Devils to be in than their original predicament.

There have been hints in the past the NHL may have been open to easing the penalties against the Devils if the team applied for consideration. And according to the league, that’s what they did.

From the NHL’s press release:

“The Devils recently applied to the League for reconsideration and relief from a portion of the original penalty, citing primarily changes in circumstances which, in the Club’s view, changed the appropriateness of the sanctions initially imposed. After due and thorough consideration, the League has decided that a modification of the original circumvention penalty associated with the Kovalchuk contract is warranted and, accordingly, has amended the sanctions…”

Lots has changed since the punishment first came down. Kovalchuk is “retired” from the NHL and back playing at home in the Kontinental League. New rules were put into the CBA struck in 2013 that retroactively punished teams like Vancouver and Chicago for signing these circumventing deals. There are now seven- and eight-year limits on player contracts.

What hasn’t changed is the fact the Devils so blatantly went against the NHL’s wishes and warnings in 2010. The league came down hard on the team, perhaps unnecessarily so, because of this act – and that act will stand forever. If this punishment was ruled fair in the past, the league should support it in the present.

But this league is not exactly know for its supplemental discipline.

The other strange part of this is it puts into question whether Devils GM Lou Lamoriello knew all along that he would get the first round pick back. When Lamoriello kept the 29th overall pick in 2012 to take Stefan Matteau instead of forfeiting it, the decision was curious. Today’s decision sheds new light on that call, though, and makes you question the NHL’s motives in overturning the penalty.

“The League intends to have no further comment on this matter,” was the final line in today’s press release.

The way the NHL completely overlooked these circumventing scenarios when the 2004-05 CBA was struck and how it handled the Devils in 2010 and today is more ridiculous than the Kovalchuk contract ever was.

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