[UPDATE 7/21: The NHL has tentatively rejected this contract, bringing up a whole new mess of issues. Regardless, here's what I wrote before we learned the NHL was able to do that]
After a lengthy negotiating process, Ilya Kovalchuk has indeed signed a 17-year, $102 million contract with the New Jersey Devils. The length appears striking at first, but the last five years of the deal are all worth $550,000, and $750,000 in the year before that, so in essence, Lou Lamoriello has jumped on the Marian Hossa / Chris Pronger / Henrik Zetterberg bandwagon and taken advantage of the salary cap by dragging Kovalchuk’s average annual cap hit down to just $6 mil with dummy years at the end of the deal that he’ll almost assuredly buy out.
There may be a handful of tricky seasons in between Kovalchuk’s formative years and his inevitable buyout/retirement, but basically, Lamoriello has shrewdly taken advantage of an increasingly-exploited salary cap loophole to keep a bona fide superstar with his franchise at an exceedingly reasonable annual cap hit.
Still, that “17 years” just looks really, really crazy on paper, and it’s brought up a whole series of objections — some legitimate, but most just angrily uninformed — which Scott Burnside lays out in this somewhat-bewildering post. Let’s dissect the four oddest paragraphs:
Some will immediately draw a line between the Kovalchuk deal and the 15-year contract that made netminder Rick DiPietro and the New York Islanders the butt of jokes around the sporting world. Too much. Too long. Those were the prevailing comments in the wake of the much-anticipated signing.
They will? Then “Some” are stupid.
Burnside isn’t making this point himself, fortunately, just relaying the general implication that the Kovalchuk deal is comparable to the albatross the Islanders gave Rick DiPietro (I’m pretty sure they had him sign his name on a literal live albatross), which is completely unfounded. DiPietro’s deal earns him exactly $4.5 million in every year of his deal, for an annual cap hit of $4.5 million — the length of the deal wasn’t deliberately lengthened to drag the cap number down, the Islanders just wanted to lock up DiPietro for fifteen years.
The Kovalchuk deal, by contrast, was deliberately lengthened by the Devils so they could pad the end of the deal with $500k seasons, drag down the average annual cap hit of the contract, and pay Kovalchuk fair market value over the next decade without totally destroying their cap space, giving themselves the option to buy him out with 5-7 years left on the deal once most of the money has been paid and allow Kovalchuk to retire, sign a latter-day NHL contract, or finish his career in the KHL. It’s far more similar to the deal the Blackhawks gave Marian Hossa; the 17-year Kovalchuk deal appears oppressively long-term on paper, but it’s actually far less restrictive to the franchise than, say, a 7-year, $60 mil deal with a $9+ mil cap hit would’ve been.
The Devils will have an awkward decision to make when Kovalchuk turns 36 with 8 years remaining on the contract, about when to precisely buy out his deal — do they take a $6 mil cap hit at age 36, then buy out 7 years, or take another $6 mil hit at 37 and buy out 6 years, or wait further? — but these concerns won’t arise for nearly a decade when the cap will have increased and a new CBA may be in place, and the concerns aren’t nearly as suffocating to the Devils as a shorter-term deal with an $8-10 mil cap hit would have been.
Also, Rick DiPietro is an average goaltender (who’s constantly injured, though he wasn’t before the deal was signed), while Kovalchuk is a perennial 40-goal-superstar. These mysterious “Some” who are comparing the contracts because the number 17 is close to the number 15 are hopelessly uninformed.