Ilya Kovalchuk's Rejected Contract: Solving the NHL Salary Circus

Z DContributor IJuly 21, 2010

Seventeen Years. It's a long time. Seventeen years can give us up to four different presidents, four world cups, and a birth, entire career, plus retirement for a Chinese olympic gymnast. The University of Georgia can even beat the University of Florida three times in football in that time span. It's an eternity. 

So why would an NHL franchise sign a player (with a reputation for poor work ethic) for seventeen years? Manipulation. 

The structure of the NHL's salary cap regulations have been completely abused by league owners and GMs this offseason, with Kovalchuk's $102 million deal being the most notable.

Two things make the contract (which has been rejected by the NHL) ridiculous: The front-loaded salary and the age at which Kovalchuk will complete it. The all-star Russian winger will be 44 in 2027, an age at which no athlete has ever (and will ever) be able to compete at a world class level. 

Not only has Kovalchuk already recorded nine seasons in his career, he's not exactly the best at his position. He's certainly been in the argument before, but conventional wisdom says that only Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby are worthy of the longest contract in the sport. 

Pair that with the fact that New Jersey is a franchise that has built a reputation of being the most defensive-minded group in hockey, and committing $102 million to a purely offensive piece sounds like a head scratcher. Imagine the Baltimore Ravens signing Chad Ochocinco for 17 years. It's a move that would not be congruent with the team's identity. 

If you're going to pay a man whose game is built around speed and finesse to play for your franchise when his hair is mostly gone, it better be cheap.

That's where the front-loaded cash comes in. Kovalchuk will make a peak of $11.5 million during the core years of the deal, but then will sharply decline to earnings of $550,000 for the last several years. 

The solution is simple. If Gary Bettman and the league are serious about keeping these long-term commitments genuine, they only need to enact a policy of "contractual salary balance."

Example: Player X signs a 10-year, $100 million dollar deal when he's 30 years old. He's due to make $15 million for the first five years of the deal, $7.5 million for seasons six and seven, and $3.3 million for seasons eight, nine, and 10. 

If the league's salary structure required that a player's lowest-earning year in a contract can be no less that 50 percent of the salary in his highest-earning year, then "front-loading" could never be so dramatic. 

In our example with Player X, his $3.3 million in the last three seasons is well under 50 percent of $15 million. The terms of that particular contract would be disapproved. 

We'll leave the actual number crunching to those who are actually employed in finance, and in the meantime I'll give credit where credit is due.

With arbitration coming in the Kovalchuk contract controversy, the 27-year-old will likely get his massive payday from New Jersey. Kovalchuk and his agents have potentially guaranteed him a substantial amount of cash that will take him well into his mid 40s, an age at which forwards are rarely on an NHL roster.

When his speed and scoring touch start to fail him in his later years, Kovalchuk will need to learn to be a well-conditioned, hard working, selfless, high-morale teammate.

Will $550,000 be enough motivation?