The Devils made the biggest splash of the off-season, re-signing unrestricted free agent left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk to the longest contract in NHL history. The signing ends a long period of anticipation throughout the league, but brings to light several potential issues for the Devils going forward. While I’m excited to have one of the game’s best scorers don the red, white and black, the signing also raises questions which need to be answered.
Clearly, the biggest news comes from the terms of the contract. Kovalchuk will make $102 million over 17 years, with an annual cap hit of $6 million. The deal has already been approved by the NHL Players Association, and there’s no reason to believe the NHL will deny the contract. The deal won’t be the richest in NHL history (that honor belongs to Alex Ovechkin), but it will certainly put pressure on Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk, whether he wants it or not, will now have immense scrutiny on his every game. Scott Burnside of ESPN already took the first shots, pointing out Kovalchuk’s lack of success in the playoffs. These criticisms will continue to grow if Kovalchuk doesn’t live up to the now immense expectations. By signing for 17 years, Kovalchuk committed the prime of his career to the Devils, who don’t have many big scorers and don’t usually play an “offensive” game.
But I think we saw some flashes of Kovalchuk’s ability and potential with the team last year. He averaged a point per game during the season, matching Zach Parise in that category. The winger also played a surprisingly solid defensive game, as explained in this piece I wrote exactly one month ago. While he will need to live up to huge expectations, I believe Kovalchuk already proved some of his worth to the organization. With players expecting John MacLean to institute a more aggressive system, I think we’ll see Kovalchuk continue to be an offensive force. Playing to the expectations of that contract should keep him motivated.
The Long-Term Financial Impact
Kovalchuk’s cap hit each season will only be $6 million, which is a bargain for a great offensive player. But taking a look at the overall contract breakdown brings some concerns.
Kovalchuk’s contract breakdown:
2010-11: $6 Million
2011-12: $6 Million
2012-13: $11.5 Million
2013-14: $11.5 Million
2014-15: $11.5 Million
2015-16: $11.5 Million
2016-17: $11.5 Million (no-movement clause ends on June 30, 2017)
2017-18: $10.5 Million
2018-19: $8.5 Million (no-trade clause begins on July 1, 2018)
2019-20: $6.5 Million
2020-21: $3.5 Million
The back-end of the deal is clearly favorable to the Devils. In those last five years, Kovalchuk’s contract will be minimal. But it’s the next few years which worry me. Remember, Parise will become a restricted free agent next summer, and this contract will probably be used as a measuring stick for what Parise should make. General manager Lou Lamoriello is good at getting a little discount from players, but I’m sure that Parise will demand upwards of $90 million. Even though Travis Zajac has three years left on his deal, he’ll probably demand a few more million when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Even Martin Brodeur will need to be resigned in the coming years. These players are the cornerstones of the franchise, and the Devils will need to give them raises while being responsible for the bulk of Kovalchuk’s contract.
Overall, I worry that Kovalchuk’s contract may tie up the Devils for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to see Zajac or Parise walk away from the team because Lamoriello doesn’t have the money to sign either player. While this probably wouldn’t happen, it’ll be interesting to see the long-term financial impact of his signing.
Continue reading after the jump for more analysis on the trade.
Kovalchuk’s Locker Room Impact
With his new contract, Kovalchuk becomes the highest-paid Devil, making more next year than Brodeur ($5.2 million) and Patrik Elias ($5 million). His $11.5 million dollar salary, which begins in 2012-13, will be the highest ever in franchise history. That carries a significant impact in the locker room. Players could either be envious of his money or jealous that the team invested so much in one player. We already saw some backlash against former head coach Jacques Lemaire’s handling of Kovalchuk last season, and I wonder if the same opinions will continue to linger throughout his Devils career. There will be expectations, whether fair or unfair, placed on Kovalchuk because of the contract. Many of them will probably come from inside the locker room, and Kovalchuk will need to respond to those pressures.
Kovalchuk’s signing will also send ripples of worry through the Devils’ locker room. The Devils are over the cap for this season, and the long-term impact of the contract means the team will need to shed some contracts not only for this season, but the following seasons as well. That’s going to leave some uneasiness in the locker room. We all know who the fans want to see go – Brian Rolston, Colin White, possibly Jamie Langenbrunner – but the fact of the matter is that it won’t be that simple. This isn’t directly related to Kovalchuk, but that contract will mean someone will be on the move. Lamoriello won’t have an easy decision, and there will probably be some tension within the locker room because of the deal.
Rolston acknowledged the fact he might be on the block to Tom Gulitti on Monday.
“Who knows what’s going to happen? But, at this point, I think that I am (going to remain a Devil),” Rolston said to Gulitti. “This is a business and things happens, so I don’t know. Anything could happen with me. Something could happen with me. Who knows? But, at this point, I’m enjoying my summer and letting the cards fall where they may.”
It won’t make for an easy decision, but there will be players leaving. We’ll see how that situation plays out within the locker room leading up to camp.
The signing of Kovalchuk shows a few things to me. Lamoriello is tired of watching the Devils fail in the postseason, and Kovalchuk is the crown jewel of an overhauled roster. He wants the team to go deeper in the playoffs, and Kovalchuk’s abilities should help the team do just that. With the rest of the players coming in this offseason, Lamoriello has established a solid lineup that should challenge for a spot at the Stanley Cup.
It also signals a slight shift in philosophy. The Devils, who have long depended on defense and low-scoring games, signed one of the best goal scorers of this generation. I think Lamoriello and the organization want to make a statement – that the Devils, defensive by nature, can open it up and be a threat offensively night in and night out. The team has never been high scoring, but the signing of Kovalchuk shows a willingness to spend on the offensive side of the puck. While the Devils will always focus on defense, the team has shown a willingness to acquire some offensive punch. This consistent weakness may help them become deeper and, hopefully, compete for a Cup.
In my opinion, I think 17 years is an absolutely ridiculous number. But the Devils will have Kovalchuk in his prime, and the final five years of the contract are a bargain. If the team can still re-sign Parise and other quality players, then I’d consider this signing a great one. But before I can give a full yes or no, I’d like to see how the contract plays out. Until then, I think it’s a step in the right direction.
Kovalchuk Photo Credits: Al Bello/Getty Images and Bruce Bennett/Getty Images