The Kovalchuk Problem, Part 4: The Architect of Disruption

Logic would suggest that my photoshop skills should improve with time. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Illustrations aside, part 4 of this series is the last, as our story finally has an end.

Kovalchuk got his $100 million, which rumors suggested is what he wanted all along.

He also got to stay in New Jersey; rumors on that conflicted all summer long until he signed the first of two contracts there, when he claimed he never wanted to leave the Garden State.

So Kovalchuk is happy, and the New Jersey Devils, must be as well, right?

Some praise Kovalchuk’s restructured 15 year, $100 million contract for being able to please Kovalchuk, comply with league and CBA regulations (eventually) and fit within the team’s salary cap (sort of). Many others, however, criticize the contract for still being a circumvention despite the changes, and point out the obvious salary problems that the Devils will face.

Initially, the length was the subject of the most criticism. Many still say that Kovalchuk will not be playing hockey into his 40’s, maybe not even into his upper 30’s, and although he will be paid more in his final years of this re-structured contract ($3MM and $4MM in the last two years vs. 550K), many presume that he will opt to retire.

That is of course, speculation. Not even Kovalchuk knows if he will be playing in the year 2025, the final year of his contract.

But that is a matter for another day, and another decade.

The more significant matter at hand is the Devils salary problems on their current roster.

GM Lou Lamoriello was able to make some minor moves to sneak the Devils under the NHL’s mandated $59.4 million dollars per team.

Barely.

He did so by rostering only 20 players to start the season, the amount that NHL teams are allowed to dress for a game. Teams are allowed to keep 23 players on their rosters, and most do, because if teams run into injury or suspension problems, they don’t have to adjust their payroll just to dress a full team.

It only took the Devils two games to run into such problems.

Game 1:

Devils: 18 skaters. Dallas Stars: 18 skaters.

Result: Devils lose 4-3 in OT.

Game 2:

Devils: 18 skaters. Washington Capitals: 18 skaters.

Result: Devils lose 7-2. In regulation. Anton Volchenchov left with a broken nose. Brian Rolston left with a lower-body (groin) injury.
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond also instigated a fight in the final 5 minutes of the game which would earn him a 1 game suspension.

Game 3:

Devils: 15 skaters. Pittsburgh Penguins: 18 skaters.

Result: Devils lose 3-1.

Lou Lamoriello, searching for answers, signs Adam Mair for the league minimum. He dresses for the next game.

Game 4:

Devils: 16 skaters. Buffalo Sabres: 18 skaters.

Result: Devils win 1-0 in OT.

Not sure why Letourneau-Leblond didn’t play, as his suspension was only for one game, but it did not matter.

That morning, the Devils placed Brian Rolston on long-term injured reserve, which was actually a blessing, sweeping his hefty $5.062 MM cap hit under the rug temporarily. The team was not able to use his salary cap space until the following day. This allowed Lou to call up some youngsters for the next game.

Great. Except now the team has called up Tim Sesito, with 10 NHL games under his belt, and Jacob Josefson, a 19 year old rookie, to play with some very tired Devils skaters. Not only that, but perhaps they (or at least Josefson) are being robbed of valuable development time and being pressured to perform at the NHL level.

Game 5:

Devils: 18 skaters. Colorado Avalanche: 18 skaters.

Result: Devils lose 3-2. Sesito played 10:28. Josefson played 15:15. 7th most among forwards on the team in his first ever NHL game.

Game 6:

Devils: 18 skaters. Boston Bruins: 18 skaters.

Result: Devils lose 4-1.

For those of you following along, that puts the Devils’ record at 1-4-1 through six games. Not exactly looking like the Stanley Cup contender that Kovalchuk was looking for.

Of course, it’s only 6 games. That’s not even 0.5% of Kovalchuk’s contract.

The Devils’ salary cap problems this year occur while their other superstar winger (must be nice to have multiple) Zach Parise, is making $3.125 MM. Many suggest that Kovalchuk’s paycheck means Parise will earn his somewhere else next year when he becomes a restricted free agent.

He will most assuredly be getting a raise, probably around twice what he makes now. Even if veteran Jason Arnott is not invited back ( his $4.5 MM certainly won’t be) Lou Lamoriello still may have to make another move to free up the necessary money to keep Parise.

My guess is that they won’t be able to hang onto both him and captain Jamie Langenbrunner.
Here is the bottom line-

Cost of acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk:

    • $100,000,000 over 15 years
    • $3,000,000 fine
    • 3 draft picks: two 1st-round picks (one to Atlanta, one forfeited after the CBA circumvention in addition to the fine) and one 3rd-round pick
    • Johnny Oduya (solid stay-at-home defenseman)
    • Niclas Bergfors (young player with a lot of potential)
    • Patrice Cormier (highly touted though controversial prospect)
    • potentially Zach Parise or Jamie Langenbrunner
    • and how many losses this season?

The team had a shortened bench in games 3 and 4 mainly (if not totally) due to his contract. Both games resulted in losses for the Devils. I’m chalking that up as two and counting.

Puck Daddy editor and Devils fan Greg Wyshynski even makes a case that the Devils should be penalized for their incomplete roster as a circumvention of the CBA.

It certainly seemed like Lou Lamoriello knew what he was doing all along, and maybe he still does.

But it is interesting that no one else, other than Atlanta and SKA St. Petersburg, ever came close to offering Kovalchuk nearly what the Devils did.

Sure there were false reports about Garth Snow and the Islanders. Credit is due to Kovalchuk’s agent Jay Grossman, who at this point seems like he was able to use what little leverage they had to rake in far beyond market value for Kovalchuk.

Did he use Lombardi and the Kings as nothing more than a bargaining chip? Yup. Did he waste Dean and the Kings’ time in doing so? Probably. But that’s what he’s paid to do, and he did it exceedingly well. In my opinion, Lamoriello and the Devils got swindled.

If the only other legitimate NHL offer this summer for Kovalchuk was the Kings’ $80 MM one, what justifies Lamoriello offering $100 MM? Perhaps he thought the threat of Kovalchuk signing with the KHL team was real, but he would have been alone in that boat.

Now, Lamoriello, the Devils’ players, and the New Jersey fans are paying the price.

An argument could be made that even when New Jersey dresses a full 18 skaters, their contract constraints are forcing them to rely on rookies with entry-level contracts perhaps before they are ready. Admittedly this is very speculative but it is merely something to consider.

Wasn’t paying a premium for Kovalchuk supposed to produce more wins, both in the regular season and playoffs?

The playoffs, at the moment anyway, are not exactly a sure thing, as they currently sit at 1-4-1 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

More shockingly, the Devils have the lowest goals for in the entire conference with 10 goals in 6 games.  That’s two less than both Boston and Florida who have played only 4 games each.

Even if Kovalchuk doesn’t immediately produce wins, shouldn’t he at least immediately produce goals? That is the only thing that justifies that $100 million contract- putting pucks in the net.

The ‘ZIP’ line or ‘ZZ Pop’ line of Travis Zajac-Ilya Kovalchuk-Zach Parise has already been broken up. Kovalchuk is now skating with aforementioned rookie Josefson and and Patrik Elias, who has also been a subject of trade rumors due to the team’s salary issues.

Yes, these things happen. Lines break up. Good teams struggle. And it’s only 6 games.

But after what was undoubtedly one of the most drama filled off-seasons due almost entirely to the Kovalchuk will-he-or-won’t-he and the contract will-THEY-or-won’t-they situations, I – for one – thought that Ilya would stop at nothing to silence his doubters.

He was the one who wanted to make more than Alex Ovechkin (supposedly) and put us through a summer full of headaches, and ultimately put the Devils in this position.

But he is NOT Ilya the great. He is not the ONE.

I wonder if Kovalchuk ever wishes he could have just taken the blue pill instead.
◊ Reed Kaufman

The Kovalchuk Problem, parts 1-3:

Ilya Kovalchuk - model pose

Part 1

Part 2: From Russia with Love


Part 3: The NeverEnding Story

Author’s note:

Sincere thanks to anyone who read all 4 articles (Lauren), as the word count probably rivaled War and Peace.

Comments
5 Responses to “The Kovalchuk Problem, Part 4: The Architect of Disruption”
  1. LH says:

    Great article. I think it’s important to look at the business aspect of any professional sports team, especially when studying a transaction like this. At the end of the day, a playoff run, especially with Stanley Cup win, is the best return on investment any team can get. A win is a boost for a team, its merchandise sales, and its attendance. While Kovalchuk may have provided the Devils with an initial boost of goodwill, it seems like the lack of wins might negate any boost. Yes, the season is in its infancy, but the Devils attendance percentage is a mere 79.1%, which is less than the pre-Kovalchuk rate of 89.6% for the 2008-2009 season, and far below the Kings’ current rate of 93.6%.

    But I guess we wouldn’t understand…it must be a Jersey thing.

  2. Great read. Great series. The whole situation really highlights the desperation of the Devils. I have a feeling that the organization realizes that their window to win is shrinking at an alarming rate, considering Brodeur won’t be manning the crease for too much longer and the certain loss of either Langenbrunner or Parise. Kovy will be a great player on an unimpressive team in 3 years. Its now or never for the Devs.

    • crownedroyal says:

      Thank you, sir. Appreciate your support as always. Just talked to a Devils fan who said that the Kovy thing was mainly a result of pressure from the Devils ownership, to help fill seats in their new arena. Makes sense, I suppose.

  3. Shawn says:

    great write up! how do you think this plays into the whole devils and salary cap issue?

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