Ilya Kovalchuk is an unrestricted free agent for the second time this summer.
Independent arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled in favour of the NHL’s rejection of Kovalchuk’s 17-year, US$102-million contract with the New Jersey Devils.
The NHL team released a statement Monday night saying it respects Bloch’s ruling and indicated that it still hopes to land the talented Russian.
“While we do not currently have a contract with Ilya Kovalchuk, discussions have resumed and we are hopeful that a contract will be reached that meets with the principles in arbitrator Bloch’s award and the NHL’s approval,” said Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Kovalchuk agreed to the deal with the Devils on July 20 but the league ruled later that night that the landmark contract, the longest in NHL history, violated the salary cap.
The NHL Players’ Association then filed a grievance disputing the league’s rejection.
The NHLPA said in a statement that it was “disappointed with the arbitrator’s ruling to uphold the NHL’s rejection of the contract between the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk.”
The NHLPA added it was “currently reviewing the decision and will have no further comment at this time.”
In a brief statement the NHL, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that Bloch’s ruling is “consistent with the league’s view of the manner in which the collective bargaining agreement should deal with contracts that circumvent the salary cap.”
The league felt the Devils went too far in giving the 27-year-old Russian a contract that would pay $95 million over the first 10 years, but only $7 million over the final seven. That would reduce the cost against the salary cap to a relatively modest $6 million per year.
The final five years would pay only $550,000 per season.
Questions were also raised over the duration. It would end when Kovalchuk is 44, well past retirement age for most players.
However, in recent seasons the league has not rejected similar “front-end-loaded” contracts in which the salary cap hit is diminished by adding extra years at relatively low pay.
Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo has a $63-million, 12-year deal that pays only $7 million over the final four seasons and takes him to age 43. Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks will be 42 at the end of his $62.8-million, 12-year contract that pays $3.5 million in the last four seasons.
Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings and Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers are among those with similar contracts. In length, the Kovalchuk deal tops New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro’s 15 years and Alex Ovechkin’s 13 with the Washington Capitals.
None is as long or tapers so sharply at the end as that signed by the flashy Kovalchuk, the biggest name on the free agent market this summer.
Kovalchuk’s deal was slated to pay $6 million in each of the next two seasons, jump to $11.5 million for five seasons, and then drop to $10.5 million, $8.5 million, $6.5 million and $3.5 million for one year each before slowing to $750,000 for 2021-22 and then $550,00 through to 2027.
The high-scoring winger reportedly rejected a $101-million, 12-year contract offer from the Atlanta Thrashers before he was traded to New Jersey in February.
Kovalchuk was drafted first overall by the Thrashers in 2001 and has 338 goals and 304 assists in 642 career NHL games. Last season, he had 41 goals and 44 assists.
Tapered contracts arose after a salary cap was instituted following the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. Next season’s cap is $59.4 million per team.