Ilya Kovalchuk: In Defense of Long Contracts

AJ BasileCorrespondent IJuly 22, 2010

NEWARK, NJ - JULY 20: General Manager Lou Lamoriello, owner Jeff Vanderbeek, Ilya Kovalchuk, and head coach John Maclean of the New Jersey Devils speak with the media during a press conference 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

On the surface, they are all ridiculous. Marian Hossa at 42? Henrik Zetterberg at 40? While recent contracts may make it look normal, few players are on the ice during their life's fourth decade.

Still, long term deals in the new NHL are becoming a trend—an often used loophole to keep cap hits down and top talent in town.

There is no doubt that these contracts can go wrong quickly. Just ask the New York Islanders. Rick DiPietro is having a hard time making it to the fifth year of his mega deal, never mind the 15th. Alexi Yashin was the definition of what can go wrong with a healthy player as he became complacent and ineffective.

The rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk's 17-year contract with the New Jersey Devils draws the line in the sand. GM's are now, we can assume, on notice. Obviously, the league believes that deals such as this that circumvent the cap hurt the game.

The thing is, they don't.

Let's begin by looking to the most popular league in the world, the NFL.

NFL teams have made a living off of cap circumvention by using performance bonuses to spread out cap hits over future seasons and minimize the current impact. This allows for better planning while keeping a team together. This is how the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts have had winning teams for years.

There is, however, a more important aspect to cap circumvention which the league needs to realize. When you think of the Colts and Patriots, you think of winning teams and two of the most recognizable faces in sports—Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

The main complaint about the NFL is that players switch teams to often. Yet, the most marketable players stay in place for the majority of their careers.

Let's look at the NHL. Why wouldn't you want Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin to sign lifetime contracts? If either of these players pulled a LeBron James and left in their prime, that market would be destroyed (similarly to what can happen in Cleveland with the NBA). A life-time deal guarantees revenue and marketing for that team in that city.

Here's where the NHL's biggest problem hurts them at a time they are trying to flex some muscle. If the league understood how to market itself and its players, this contract wouldn't be an issue.

What would happen to the league if Ilya Kovalchuk signed for 17 years in New Jersey? You would have an elite player in his prime on a winning team within marketing distance of the biggest city in the world, a city that also happens to have a heavy Russian community.

The New Jersey Devils have forever been the boring, defensive hockey team that killed the NHL. This signing changes every stereotype about the organization.

Zach Parise and Martin Broudeur can't be marketed as well as Kovalchuk because they will always be looked at as products of the system. Kovalchuk makes this team marketable and he puts people in their seats, home and away. He even helps puts them on NBC and Versus.

And do you really believe there are NYC area hockey fans that don't want to see more of Kovalchuk versus Sean Avery? It makes those Hudson River Rivalry battles that much more entertaining.

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There is literally a train under Madison Square Garden that leaves you blocks from the Prudential Center. Think having an elite player a few minutes away by public transportation would hurt attendance?

Instead, the NHL would rather make teams pay top dollar cap wise, in effect forcing them to choose one franchise player and let the rest walk. If Kovalchuk's cap hit is above $6 million, the Devils can't keep Brodeur and Parise, the Kings can't keep Doughty and Johnson, the Blackhawks can't keep Hossa, Kane and Toews, etc.

They want this loophole closed during the next CBA and they are using this contract to make poorly thought out point.

But by closing the loophole, the NHL would effectively be spreading around the wealth—athletic socialism if you will. Does forcing teams to lose a superstar player after a few seasons really make the league better,? It helps other teams, for sure, but it makes all 30 look like the old Atlanta Thrashers—Kovalchuk with Heatley/Hossa and nothing else.

If a team has two elite players with a salary and cap hit at $10 million, you're looking at the remaining $40 million going to 21 players. All this does is force more $4-5 million players to either take pay cuts or go to the KHL. It effectively enrages the NHLPA and puts the European leagues in contention for higher caliber talent.

Neither is a good end result for the NHL.

The truth is, whether those in the leagues front office realize it or not, cap circumvention is good for the league. Fans like to know that the best players will be in one spot. Jerseys are an investment now thanks to Reebok and no one wants to waste that money on a short term player (think a Red Wings Modano jersey will be a hot seller?).

And no one likes the messy breakup that comes with talent moving on (insert favorite jersey burning ceremony here). Closing this loophole brings out all of that negative emotion year after year. It bothers fans and hurts way more than it helps.

Devils fans will never forgive Scott Gomez or Paul Martin. Seattle Mariners fans will never forgive Alex Rodriguez. Cleveland Cavaliers fans will never forgive LeBron James. Is that what the NHL wants to see?

Are there teams that, cap wise, can afford a $10 million hit? Yes. But they can't afford it cash wise and if they can, they definitely can't pay that salary and win.

The league needs to ask itself what it believes to be more beneficial—players bouncing around on short term contracts every few seasons or keeping the best players in one city for their careers. I would love to hear the argument for the former.

Unless Bettman and Co. want to lose talent overseas and precious fans at home, they need to realize that there is more to the job than forcing teams south of the Mason Dixon line to be competitive. When done correctly, long term contracts can be beneficial to the league. It would be helpful if they noticed that.