NHL Shows Hypocrisy In Nixing Kovalchuk Contract

Recently, the NHL vetoed a 17-year contract signed by Ilya Kovalchuk to play for the New Jersey Devils. The 17-year deal had a total value of $102 million, which would amount to a $6.00 million cap hit. The NHL nixed the deal because they ruled it was a violation of the CBA and a circumvention of the NHL’s salary cap. The final five years of Kovalchuk’s deal were said to be around $550,000 per season. Those five seasons would lower the cap hit significantly and give the Devils the cap space they needed to lock Kovalchuk to a long-term deal. In response to the NHL’s rejection, the NHLPA has filed a grievance against the NHL.

Regardless of whether or not you believe Kovalchuk is worthy of such an enormous contract is not the issue here. The issue is that the NHL should be ashamed for cancelling this deal. Kovalchuk is one of the NHL’s biggest stars; the last thing the NHL needs is for yet another big star player to leave for the KHL.

It is ironic that the NHL cites circumvention of the salary cap as the reason for nixing the Kovalchuk contract. Other NHLers have done the same thing with their contracts. Let’s observe several other front-loaded contracts that enabled NHL teams to lock up their star players at lower cap hits.

Henrik Zetterberg

2009-2010: $7.40 million
2010-2011: $7.75 million
2011-2012: $7.75 million
2012-2013: $7.50 million
2013-2014: $7.50 million
2014-2015: $7.50 million
2015-2016: $7.50 million
2016-2017: $7.50 million
2017-2018: $7.00 million
2018-2019: $3.35 million
2019-2020: $1.00 million
2020-2021: $1.00 million

Cap hit: $6.083 million

If you eliminate the final three years, the cap hit would roughly be $7.48 million. By having three incredibly cheap years at the end of his contract, the Red Wings saved $1.40 million in cap space. Why weren’t the Red Wings and Zetterberg found guilty of salary cap circumvention?

Chris Pronger

2010-2011: $7.60 million
2011-2012: $7.60 million
2012-2013: $7.20 million
2013-2014: $7.00 million
2014-2015: $4.00 million
2015-2016: $0.525 million
2016-2017: $0.525 million

Cap hit: $4.921 million

Pronger is an elite NHL defenseman who can easily command $6 million or more per season. Prior to signing this extension with the Flyers, Pronger had a $6.25 million cap hit. If you were to eliminate the final two cheap years of Pronger’s contract, his cap hit would increase from $4.921 million to $6.68 million. Why was Pronger allowed to get away with a front-loaded contract which reduced the cap hit in the final years and Kovalchuk isn’t allowed to get away with it?

Roberto Luongo

2010-2011: $10.00 million
2011-2012: $6.716 million
2012-2013: $6.714 million
2013-2014: $6.714 million
2014-2015: $6.714 million
2015-2016: $6.714 million
2016-2017: $6.714 million
2017-2018: $6.714 million
2018-2019: $3.382 million
2019-2020: $1.618 million
2020-2021: $1.00 million
2021-2022: $1.00 million

Cap hit: $5.33 million

Roberto Luongo is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. Prior to signing this extension, Luongo’s cap hit was $6.75 million. Despite being in the prime of his career, his extension lowers his cap hit by $1.42 million. The final years of his contract were clearly done to lower the cap hit and give the Vancouver Canucks more cap space. Why weren’t the Canucks and Luongo found guilty of circumventing the salary cap? If you eliminate the final four cheap years of Luongo’s contract, his cap hit rises from $5.33 million to $7.125 million.

Pronger and Luongo are clearly playing on cap hits that are far below their own market values. Why were their front-loaded contracts enabled by the NHL? Why does the NHL choose to make an example of Kovalchuk and deprive him of this deal?

It remains to be seen what Kovalchuk will do. Perhaps he’ll sign a new contract with the Devils. Perhaps he’ll sign with the Los Angeles Kings or another NHL team. Or perhaps the NHL’s worst nightmare may come true: Kovalchuk bolts for the KHL.

The NHL should be ashamed for being two-faced hypocrites in enabling other players to sign contracts that are very similar to Kovalchuk’s.

The NHL has nobody to blame but themselves for enabling loopholes to be explored in the salary cap. Their hypocrisy is far worse than the loopholes they left unattended in their collective bargaining agreement. If they wish to prevent teams from issuing front-loaded contracts, then they should install what I call a “Depreciation Clause.” This Depreciation Clause should state that no player’s salary may go down by more than X percent from one year to the next in a multi-year contract. They should also place a limit on how many years players may sign for. Players over the age of 28 on the next season’s opener should not be allowed to sign for more than 10 years.

I was also contemplating the idea of an “Appreciation Clause” as well; however, I feel there won’t be a need for it. You won’t see veterans agreeing to back-loaded contracts because they want to make their money as quickly as possible before they retire. The only players that I envision agreeing to back-loaded contracts are very young players; I am fine with young players signing long-term deals, because they will more than likely be around long enough to earn that money.

If the NHL were to implement these ideas, they can prevent salary cap abuse.

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