NHL had to deal carefully with Kovalchuk contract, more notes
The Kovalchuk contract became a tangled web with dangerous ramifications
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"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."
-- Sir Walter Scott.
With respect to Sir Walter, I'm not going to say that anyone involved with the Ilya Kovalchuk contract mess and all its ramifications has been practicing deception. Let's just say the matter became an amazingly tangled web.
Let's start with the recent extension.
The Kovalchuk contract was supposed to be dealt with by 5 p.m. on Sept. 1 at the latest. The NHL had received the Devils' new offer to the unrestricted free agent right winger, and it was said to be a tad more in line with what the league was looking for in terms of cash ($100 million) and time (15 years) that do not amount to avoidance of the salary cap. That an arbitrator rejected the first deal (17 years at $102 million) on those grounds was a stunning disappointment for Kovalchuk, his agent, the Devils and the still-leaderless NHL Players Association.
In the process, the arbitrator handed the NHL a hammer, anvil and mighty fire pit of power that the league is using to investigate the signed and reportedly approved contracts of stars like Roberto Luongo, Chris Pronger, Marc Savard and Marian Hossa. But when the recent Kovalchuk decision time came, the league, in somewhat surprising conjunction with the PA, issued a statement that both sides had agreed to a time extension for approval of the new deal. This begat countless questions -- "Why?" is a natural starting point -- and speculation, such as when did this matter become a negotiation and who might be representing the PA in such an undertaking?
Ultimately, the NHL signed off on the new deal by the 5 p.m. on Sept. 3 extended deadline, but virtually no one was talking on or off the record.
On the surface, it appeared that Commissioner Gary Bettman could just keep forcing the Devils (or any team) to come up with a contract that meets his standards and the PA to appeal his rejections. But another appeal could have led to a world of problems for Bettman and the people he mostly represents: NHL owners.
How far was Bettman supposed to go to rein in the Devils? This respected, but financially challenged franchise was trying to make a big splash in a new building in Newark, NJ, and it certainly would benefit from having a superstar forward in its ranks, especially playing in the shadow of the New York Rangers and, to a lesser extent, the Islanders.
Bettman also couldn't ignore Russia's KHL, which was said to have a standing offer on the table that pretty much included all the cash and term that Kovalchuk wanted. The KHL has had some success luring NHL players -- Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Nabokov, among others. Bettman has to be aware that the NHL is a better league with Kovalchuk in it, especially when he's playing in the New York market. It would have been difficult to explain to fans and owners why he was willing to let a star of that magnitude get away.
That may be why Bettman brought the PA into the agreement about a time extension. If a second contract rejection went to an appeal, Bettman risked undoing everything he'd won when arbitrator Richard Bloch handed him his hammer. It's a given that the NHLPA would have appealed in lightning-like fashion and not allowed Bloch anywhere near the table this time around. That being the case, any gains Bettman made under Bloch's ruling could have been swept away by a different arbitrator considering a third new contact. Surely Bettman realized it was better to negotiate with the PA on the second deal, perhaps giving it something it wants in return for keeping the Bloch decision intact until it's time to negotiate it into the CBA once the current agreement expires. Stay tuned.
Bettman also had to worry about the owners in Vancouver, where the prevailing rumor is that the Luongo contract could be de-registered. In terms of economic sense, that might not be a bad thing for the Canucks, given that the cost of goalie salaries has fallen faster than the perceived commitment of Ice Edge Holdings to buy the Phoenix Coyotes. Yet, should Bettman disallow that contract, the Canucks would still have negotiating rights with Luongo, but very little leverage, given that most free agent goalies have already found places of employment for the upcoming season.
The same result can be said of Ed Snider, the powerful owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, and his team's relationship with Pronger, as well as the even more powerful Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, one of Bettman's closest allies. Do the Bruins, looking for a bounce-back season, really want to see Savard's contract taken down with just under three weeks to go before training camp and no quality centers in the free-agent marketplace?
Do the Chicago Blackhawks need to lose Hossa after he's already played a season under an agreement that the league didn't like but approved anyway? Can they afford to lose yet another player after a summer of divestiture like none that's ever been witnessed under the current CBA?
In a word, "no." But there are GMs across the league who do want Bettman to do exactly that. They argue that long-term, high-budget contracts are pretty much the exclusive domain of the wealthiest or, at least, largest markets and they can't compete with such deals even though the CBA was supposed to put an end to such dominance. GMs may not hold the same economic power in Buffalo, Columbus, and South Florida as they do in Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago, but they do have strength in that small-to-midsize markets make up the bulk of the league, and as a group, they want Bettman to act in their best interests as well.
Then there's the PA. Bettman seems to be testing its overall resolve and trying to determine if former Major League Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr is actually going to be its new boss with the majority of players standing behind him. Fehr is, at the moment, simply an unpaid advisor to the PA. It has been reported that he was directly involved in the Kovalchuk extension, but that's unsubstantiated rumor according to a PA spokesman.
Even if Fehr is simply working behind the scenes, will he show his cards? Will he reveal what, if any, power he might have accumulated while advising an admittedly weak union? Will he take a hardball stance?
All and all, there is a goodly amount at stake for all sides in this matter of big ticket, long-term deals. The league, more so than the PA, needs to get this issue right.
A tangled web indeed.
More proof of entanglement?
Much of the speculative aspects of this story came from the New York Post reporting that the NHL will only accept the revised Kovalchuk offer with certain clauses removed and an upgrade in the overall salary-cap hit. It will back away from invalidating the Luongo, Savard, Pronger and Hossa deals only if the NHLPA agrees to the league's vision of new rules that would put an end to this type of cap-skirting contracts.
The Post also said that if the PA doesn't sign off on what the NHL wants, the league will again reject the newly constructed Kovalchuk deal, immediately invalidate Luongo's contact and take a hard line look at Hossa's as well.
At this writing, no one has been able to verify that, and it seems unlikely anyone will. The PA would likely challenge each rejection with a separate grievance and it's unlikely the NHL wants to get tied up in that. Still, it's an indication of the kind of power play that could be at work behind the scenes. It's certainly getting credence in Vancouver.
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