Ilya Kovalchuk Magnifies Problem With NHL Free Agency

Warren ShawCorrespondent IIAugust 7, 2010

NEWARK, NJ - JULY 20: Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils speaks with the media after announcing his contract renewal at the Prudential Center on July 20, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

NHL franchises realize that it is not good business to allow fans to get a clear view of the business side of hockey.

Business can be hard and cold and it can take away from the romance and excitement of the fastest game on earth.  

Images of teams and players are carefully crafted and guarded to protect “brand value and perceptions.”   Fans do not like scrooges, and they don’t root for Gordon Gekko or think, ”greed is good.”

No team wants to be looked at as penny-pinching or selfish, and no player wants to be seen as greedy and self-centered.

Financial considerations are never attractive on the team or the player side of contract negotiations.

Still, players and owners are very often on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to contract terms.

Owners want outstanding productivity and maximum effort throughout the entire duration of the contract for a nominal amount, while players want security and stability for as long as possible for as much money as the market will bear.

The legendary Gordie Howe was offered modest contracts during his prime earning years despite his huge contributions to the team’s success, which he accepted until he decided on a whim that he would ask for more.

To his surprise, he found out that when he asked for more he received it with no push back from the Red Wings organization.

In today’s world of $100 million contracts, the pendulum has swung decidedly in the other direction.

Now players who would be sent to the minor leagues in the Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay era are receiving arbitration awards for $2 million a year.

With the salary cap firmly in place, successful NHL franchises must manage player contracts with a mind for the future.

The Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks jettisoned several key players to stay under the cap right after they hoisted the Cup.

Coincidentally, it was Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings along with Doug Harvey of Montreal who formed the first players union in an attempt to get better benefits and working conditions for NHL players. During that era, players took on summer jobs to help make ends meet.

Now NHL franchises are forced to make careful decisions about players who in a previous era would be categorized as developmental and sent to the minor leagues for seasoning.

Still, business demands for continuous improvement is why fans can enjoy the world-class skating, shooting and passing skills continually on display in NHL arenas.

It is what sends scouts all over the world looking for exceptional hockey talent.  It is why scouts now frequent the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, in addition to the US and Canada.

Make no mistake, hockey is a billion-dollar enterprise and players work hard to make it to the NHL, the games highest level, to become millionaires.  

A great example is former Atlanta Thrasher Max Afinogenov, who was a product of Russia. He was scouted and signed by the NHL Buffalo Sabres where he impressed early on.

Hockey watchers thought he would end up as one of the league’s most exciting talents.

He enjoyed one of his most productive seasons in the NHL with Atlanta, but was offered a short-term contract by Thrasher management.   

The unrestricted free agent (UFA) eventually signed a five-year deal to play in his native Russia for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL.  

Afinogenov’s 73 points topped the Sabres in 2005-06. He also posted a productive 61 points in 56 games in 2006-07. He also was a combined plus-25.

When he sustained a groin injury in 2008-09, the Sabres let him walk as an unrestricted free agent following the season.

Following a preseason tryout, Afinogenov earned a spot in the NHL last season with
Atlanta, where he scored a career-high 24 goals and added 61 points. His plus-minus rating however was a career-worst minus-17.

Afinogenov made the right business move for his career by signing with SKA St. Petersburg and exiting the NHL to ensure his security.

In the NHL, Afinogenov would not have received a long term deal. Teams cannot afford to sign, “what if’s" to long-term pacts.

The Atlanta Thrashers management made the right move for the team by not committing to a long-term contract, fully aware that Afinogenov has a history of up-and-down performances.

Afinogenov’s former line mate on the Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk will ultimately benefit from the current collective bargaining agreement.

Eventually, he will sign a lucrative deal and stay in the NHL, although his reputation as an unselfish team player may be a little tarnished. 

As a premiere player, Kovalchuk will benefit. The problem is with the supporting players that make up the difference.   

At the end of the day, the NHL must get a better handle on player negotiations making them fair but not punitive for both sides. Good business dictates it. The game needs it.