What if there had been a Ilya Kovalchuk, Jack Hughesand Jesper Bratt line for next season? At 39, perhaps Kovalchuk would have been destined for the third line with a combination of Erik Haula, Tomas Tatar, Andreas Johnsonand Dawson Mercer. Chances are that’s not exactly what the Devils and their fans thought when the team signed Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract in July 2010. After all, Hughes was just nine years old. , the current captain of the team. Nico Hischier was 11 years old, and All Star defender Dougie Hamilton was looking to increase his stock in the 2011 draft with a big year for the Niagara IceDogs.
In reality, nothing went to plan when the Devils and then-general manager Lou Lamoriello signed the 17-year pact with Kovalchuk, with the NHL contesting it as a form of salary cap circumvention, a referee agreeing with them. This would force a negotiation between the league and the NHLPA on how to handle the long-term contract structure. In addition to Kovalchuk, the NHL had looked into the contracts of Chris Pronger, Roberto Luongo, Marc Savardand Marianne Hossawho had all been given long-term, initial-load contracts that carried salaries at or near the league minimum for the past several years, which helped reduce the overall cap on the deal.
In sum, the league and players agreed to rules affecting new contracts (from September 2010) for five or more years that lasted at least until a player’s 41st birthday, which would give a more accurate reflection the salary the player was earning. The agreement also ensured that the issue would not automatically carry over into the next CBA, and of course the rules on contracts have changed dramatically since the 2012-13 lockout. Now, seven- or eight-year maximums, constant caps, more than 35 contracts, etc., regulate at least this form of circumvention of the salary cap.
After the dispute, New Jersey and Kovalchuk agreed to a revised 15-year, $100 million contract on September 3, 2010 that would continue through the 2024-25 season, carrying a cap of $6.67 million. of dollars. With the matter now settled, the Devils were looking to their fourth Stanley Cup with their superstar in hand. Of course, as we know, the drama was far from over. In the first three years, Kovalchuk would be strong, but New Jersey would miss the playoffs in two of three years. However, Kovalchuk and the Devils would take the Los Angeles Kings to Game 6 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, with the winger playing an important role in that run.
Unfortunately for New Jersey, during the 2012-13 lockout Kovalchuk would return home to Russia, playing with SKA St. Petersburg, who he considered signing with during his free agency in 2010. playing close to home and having his family close by had an impact on Kovalchuk, who informed Lamoriello of his intention to return home to Russia after the shortened 2012-13 campaign. At just 30 years old, Kovalchuk voluntarily retired from the NHL after the 2012-13 season, leaving 12 years and $77 million on the table. The Devils, who had already lost Zach Parise in free agency the previous year, received a $250,000 annual cap recovery penalty, which is in effect through 2024-25, but received the forward’s cap.
The 2013 offseason saw New Jersey bring Jaromir Jagr to replace Kovalchuk’s production, the 41-year-old had an impressive 67-point campaign, but the Devils missed the playoffs, finishing with 88 points. The team struggled to start the 2014-15 season, firing head coach Peter DeBoer and Lamoriello leaving that spring for an opportunity with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The organization is reportedly heading for a full-scale rebuild, one that has, apart from a 2017-18 playoff appearance led by the Hart Trophy winner Taylor Room, has lasted throughout this offseason. Things appear to have finally taken a turn in New Jersey, led by Hughes, Hischier, Mercer, Hamilton and a group of world-class prospects including Luc Hughes, Simon Nemecand Alexander Holtzbut the consequences of trying to re-sign and then losing Kovalchuk are obvious.
The Devils and their fans can rightly attribute this long and painful rebuild at least in part to Kovalchuk’s abrupt departure, but they may have been the best served by it. At the time of signing, New Jersey expected Kovalchuk to lead a team backed by a Martin Brodeur and led in front by a former patrick elias. However Cory Schneider was able to become one of the best goalkeepers in the league when it was rebuilt, the team didn’t really have the younger supporting cast to put Kovalchuk on as he entered his thirties. And, having his relatively large ceiling in the books would have made that, and probably rebuilt on the fly, rather difficult. This in turn would probably have delayed the inevitable: a long and painful reconstruction.
As for Kovalchuk, the winger got his wish to return home to play in his native Russia and have his family close by, which he explained when he left the $77m on the table in the New Jersey. He would spend five more seasons with Saint Petersburg, serving as one of the best players in the league in a top team. After the 2017-18 season, the Devils’ NHL rights to the forward expired and the 35-year-old Kovalchuk sought to return to the NHL. He would sign a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings, but his contract was terminated during the 2019-20 season.
Kovalchuk’s mega-contract, whether original or revised, was neither the first nor the last offered by an NHL organization, but it carries significant weight in NHL history. First, one of the best players in the league starting in his prime, with more money than most players will ever make on the table, was one of the biggest and weirdest deals in hockey history, possibly from the period of sports history. Additionally, the original agreement and the revised agreement provided a roadmap that would alter the framework of the NHL’s contract and salary cap systems for the long term. The changes brought about by the first contract sparked the league’s desire for change, which became a focal point of the 2012-13 lockout.