Ilya Kovalchuk is heading back to the KHL after retiring from the NHL Thursday. (Getty Images)
As the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live used to say, “Now, isn’t that convenient.” A little too convenient. With one stroke of the pen, Ilya Kovalchuk gets out of the last 12 years of his 15-year deal with the New Jersey Devils to go home and play in the KHL and the riddled-in-debt Devils break free from a burdensome contract they could neither afford to pay or buy out.
And everyone seems to think this is just fine and dandy, that this is an acceptable way to do business. Well, OK. Carry on then.
I have no idea whether Kovalchuk stands to make the equivalent of the $77 million he would have earned over the next 12 years with the Devils over the same period with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, but now he gets his wish and takes his roughly $44 million in career earnings home with him.
The Devils, meanwhile, should be breaking out streamers and noisemakers over this one. It’s obvious Kovalchuk’s heart was not in playing for the Devils, since he was apparently the one who initiated this process. But Kovalchuk’s contract was just beginning to get costly for the Devils. In fact, they would have paid out a total of $56 million over the next five years. For a team that is carrying a debt load of reportedly $230 million, that’s exorbitant for a player whose production did not match the zeroes in his paycheck. An amnesty buyout would have cost the Devils $51.3 million this summer, so that was out of the question. Had Kovalchuk decided to retire after Year 9 of his 15-year deal, he would have earned $86 of his $100 million, but the NHL’s punitive cap-recapture scheme would have hit the Devils with a cap hit of $4.3 million for each of the last five years of that contract, as opposed to a hit of just over $250,000 now until 2024-25.
It’s a great, great day for the Devils, yet another when GM Lou Lamoriello once again seems to come out of a crisis looking like the genius he is, even if he had nothing to do with Kovalchuk’s decision. (Speculation from the start was that Lamoriello wanted nothing to do with the Kovalchuk contract and that it was being driven by ownership.) The NHL, meanwhile, seems to have no problem with the notion that its contracts effectively mean nothing and that there are still ways to circumvent a collective bargaining agreement without even trying.
Not that the league views it this way. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was asked in an email whether this was circumvention of the CBA and he replied by saying: “I wouldn't view it that way. I would view it as a player choosing to walk away from a long-term and very lucrative contract.”
There is little doubt Kovalchuk is doing just that, which all those with anti-Russian sentiments should keep in mind. No matter what Kovalchuk’s motivation was, the fact remains he turned his back on $77 million guaranteed dollars to play in a league where teams sometime struggle to meet payroll. It’s doubtful Kovalchuk will miss any big paychecks, since he’ll be the crown jewel of the league, but it’s safe to say the financial solvency of the NHL is on much more stable ground than that of the KHL.
The Devils maintain they had nothing to do with Kovalchuk’s decision and we have no reason to doubt them, but all of this seemed way too easy. Too easy for Kovalchuk. Too easy for the Devils. And too easy for the NHL. The league, by the way, apparently vetoed a deal between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning that would have seen the Leafs trade for Vincent Lecavalier, then buy him out, which would allow Lecavalier to re-sign with the Lightning for more favorable terms. The league said that was a circumvention, but this is not. Once again, well, OK. Carry on them.
So where does this leave the Devils, now? Well, they get a whack of cap space and $77 million back. They lose a first-round pick in 2014 – punishment for the first contract offer to Kovalchuk that the league determined circumvented the cap – and it could be argued that they lost Zach Parise and David Clarkson because of their commitment to Kovalchuk.
When all the dust settled, this was not a red-letter day for Kovalchuk, the Devils or the league. But they all somehow got what they needed. Well, OK. Carry on then.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.