New Jersey Devils Are Still Hurting from the Ilya Kovalchuk Contract Debacle

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistMarch 26, 2014

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 20:  Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Florida Panthers at the Prudential Center on April 20, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Panthers 6-2,  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Largely lost in the kerfuffle surrounding the NHL trade deadline was a league announcement representing the final resolution of the Ilya Kovalchuk/salary cap circumvention mess.

Essentially, the NHL announced that it was altering the initial penalty assessed to the New Jersey Devils for their conduct in connection to a contract given to Kovalchuk as an unrestricted free agent. The announcement explains the original penalty (the forfeiture of a first- and third-round draft pick, as well as a fine) and the changes that have been made to that penalty:

  • a reduced fine
  • instead of forfeiting their first round selection this year, New Jersey will select 30th overall and not be allowed to trade that pick

Naturally, the reaction around the league at the time of the announcement wasn’t universal praise, as Darren Dreger points out (h/t to In Lou We Trust):

While some around the NHL might look askance at the decision to lighten the Devils’ punishment, this is a situation where the league got it right and the franchise has still faced a significant penalty for its misdeed.

To begin with, there’s nothing wrong with the NHL doing the team’s new ownership a favor.

The NHL has shown time and again that it values making a dollar over strict adherence to right and wrong of even what’s best for the game, but in this case they’re both doing what’s best for the game and for the broad interests of NHL owners.

The league depends upon stable ownership, and offering a carrot to the new owners in New Jersey shows a willingness to work with prospective buyers, which contributes (in however small a way) to finding strong owners. That’s good for franchises that need new owners and for franchise values overall. In this specific instance, what’s good for the owners is also good for the fans.

That doesn’t mean the Devils got off the hook here, and it doesn’t mean that the team made the right choice when it opted not to forfeit the 29th overall pick in 2012. The team not only still faces a fine, but it also has a harsh draft penalty coming up.

New Jersey originally had control over when it surrendered its first-round draft pick, as long as it happened by the 2014 Draft. They could have forfeited the first-round pick in 2012, when the team went to the Stanley Cup Finals, but instead the team deferred the selection.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 22:  Stefan Matteau, 29th overall pick by the New Jersey Devils, poses for a portrait during the 2012 NHL Entry Draft at Consol Energy Center on June 22, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Imag
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The team currently sits 21st overall in the league standings, which equates to a 10th overall draft pick. Instead of that, the Devils will pick 30th with no ability to trade up or down from that position. They still get to keep that 29th overall pick from 2012 (the disappointing Stefan Matteau), but is the combination of the 29th overall pick in 2012 and the 30th overall pick in 2014 really more valuable than a 10th overall pick?

It seems unlikely, given some of the trades for similar picks recorded by Pro Sports Transactions:

  • 2009: The New York Islanders moved from 26th overall to 12th overall at the cost of the 37th, 62nd, 92nd and 181st picks. That’s four additional draft picks to move 14 spots—six less than the drop from 10th overall to 30th overall.
  • 2008: The Los Angeles Kings traded the 17th overall and 28th overall picks to Anaheim in exchange for the 12th overall selection. Here, moving up five spots (to a point lower than where the Devils would have picked this season) cost a 28th overall selection.
  • 2007: The San Jose Sharks moved from 13th overall to ninth overall in exchange for a 44th overall and 87th overall draft pick—a second- and third-rounder to move a total of four places in the draft order.

If the NHL allowed it, could the Devils trade Stefan Matteau and their 30th overall pick to Vancouver for the 10th overall selection? Given the trades the Canucks are making these days… Not likely; based on recent NHL history, it would be terrible value for Vancouver.

NEWARK, NJ - AUGUST 15:  President and General Manager of the New Jersey Devils Lou Lamoriello addresses the media during the press conference announcing the new ownership of the New Jersey Devils on August 15, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Andy
Andy Marlin/Getty Images

Of course, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello couldn’t have known where he was going to pick in 2014, but it’s worth wondering if the NHL would have relaxed its penalty so much if New Jersey wasn’t slated to pick so high. If the Devils were drafting 20th overall, the NHL might feel more willing to take that first-round pick away than they did with the team selecting 10th overall.

The league really isn’t doing New Jersey a huge favour by docking them 20 spots in the draft order; it’s still a big blow for the Devils.