It's been almost thirty-six hours since the NHL officially rejected the Devils' 17-year $102 million contract for Ilya Kovalchuk and I'm still annoyed at this league for what seems like an arbitrary power play against the NHLPA in advance of the next CBA war in two years. Not to mention a power play against the Devils, since we know if it was the Kings, Blackhawks, Flyers and Red Wings that inked these deals they would be approved with only a half-hearted investigation later. Why do we know this...because it's already happened! Specifically with Marian Hossa in Chicago where the league approved the contract then half-heartedly investigated after the fact.
True, I admit the Devils pushed the boundaries even further than those other teams adding a couple more years onto the deal, making multiple years at the end of the deal minimum salary and under $1 million and changing the no-movement clause of the first several years to a no-trade in the last several after a one-year window where Kovy can be traded or moved at will. While that hasn't gotten as much play as the number, I never heard of that kind of no-movement clause either. Yet, it's all legal under the CBA. How do we know this...because Lou Lamoriello hired a former NHL employee who helped work on the CBA to be what in the NFL you would call a 'cap guru'.
With all that you would think the league doesn't have a case, right? Well I guess that depends on just how broad the NHL's powers are in this CBA, which now doesn't seem worth the paper it's printed on - just like the Confederate dollar - and whether they have the right to arbitrarily reject a contract. If they do have a 'best interests in the game clause' then I call shenanigans over why they didn't do it before. I guess Original Six teams can get away with it (Philly too, though they hamstrung themselves while being cute since Chris Pronger was over 35 when he signed his deal so his retirement doesn't help them), but not us.
More to the point though, to illustrate the shenanigans involved here consider that while this fight is going on the NHLPA still hasn't picked an executive director (as much as I can't stand Don Fehr, the former MLBPA director who's up for the same post here, I wouldn't mind the NHLPA sicing him after Gary Bettman in a courtroom right about now). And unbelievably after five years of the CBA both sides still don't have an arbitrator in place for contract disputes. Granted this has never come up before to where there has been an arbitrator needed but still, it shows an unbelievable lack of foresight. Especially with the direction contracts were taking.
So part of the NHL's 'principled' stand is catching its adversary the NHLPA with its pants down. This saga could wind up being the Archduke assasination moment of the next CBA war (oh joy). You would think the skeleton crew that runs the NHLPA has to file a grievance over the NHL arbitrarily rejecting this contract, and they have until Monday 5 PM to do so. What comes after that is likely a messy process where the NHL drags its feet on approving an arbiter - since both sides have to agree to one first. Perhaps the NHL's counting on the fact the Devils won't be willing to take it to court because any hearing might not take place till after the start of the season, and the Devils would have to pre-emptively make a move to get under the salary cap since they can't be over it once the season starts.
If that's the case though I think Bettman's surprisingly underestimated his opponent. This is a GM that took on the league and won in the Jim Schoenfeld suspension in the wake of the 'donut' incident during the 1988 playoffs, and won again when he not only proved the Blues tampered with Brendan Shanahan but also successfuly argued for Scott Stevens as compensation. I don't think Lou's going to avoid a principled stand now.
Where Lou might have to answer some questions is over some of his quotes two days ago during the Kovalchuk press conference where he admitted contracts like this shouldn't be allowed though he quickly added 'but they're legal under the CBA and ownership was willing to make the commitment to this player'. Some thought he was trying to distance himself from the deal and give the credit (or blame?) to owner Jeff Vanderbeek but I don't believe Lou was trying to get himself fired, especially mere weeks after signing an extension himself.
More than likely Lou gave his opinion of Kovalchuk as a hockey player and Vanderbeek decided how far the team should go business-wise to sign him, with Lou doing his best to get the player to sign as evidenced by the recruiting work Kovy agent Jay Grossman saying Lou did to get this deal done. Lou saying he rolled his eyes over the contract length and value would be like me rolling my eyes at people paying over $100 for a seat at a regular-season hockey game, maybe we wouldn't do it with 'our' money but Vanderbeek didn't get to be as successful as he was by nickel-and-diming it either.
There's also the question of what Lou knew, and when in the wake of an ESPN report last night that Lou knew Monday night that the NHL 'would' reject the Kovalchuk contract yet the team still went ahead with the press conference the next day. Of course Devil-hater Scott Burnside broke the story and colleague E.J.Hradek backed him up. Then Tom Gulutti claimed to have the same information, until he realized he was mistaken and in fact Lou was told that the contract 'possibly' would be rejected. Don't these journalists know there's a big difference between would be rejected and could be rejected? A fifth-grader can understand that.
Of course there's been no retraction of the ESPN story yet as far as I know and I'm not sure how much I'd buy it even if it wasn't Burnside (who makes even Mark Everson look like the Devils' biggest fan in comparison to his trolling). Vanderbeek for his part claimed not to know the contract was rejected even Tuesday night. Would Lou go ahead with the press conference without telling the owner something that volitaile? Doubtful unless he had a career death wish. If there was prior knowledge there's no way he wouldn't tell Grossman or Kovy, witholding that kind of info could get them to bolt in a huff once the contract would be rejected and as of now they haven't made one peep other than Grossman expressing dissapointment that the deal was rejected.
So either they all knew beforehand or they didn't...if they did, then why go ahead with the press conference? As a preemptive salvo to the NHL? Perhaps, since Lou's quotes at the time about the contract did seem a bit odd and out of place. To make it harder PR-wise for the NHL to reject the deal if they were still 'thinking' about it? That's the only other plausible explanation that doesn't involve anything sinister (i.e. getting Kovy to commit to the Devils publicly so he can't back out of the deal). It seems odd to even be discussing these elaborate conspiracy theories and what they mean but does anything that happened in the last 48 hours seem normal to anyone else?
As to what happens next, it seems like we're in a state of limbo until Monday afternoon. Theoretically if Lou and Grossman wanted to restructure the deal quietly before that point - or if they want to talk the NHLPA out of filing a grievance - they could but I don't think they're going to punt that easily. If the NHLPA does seek to pursue legal action then one of two things could happen I suppose. Either (after a few month-long process that will likely stretch into 2010-11) the Devils win arbitration and get the contract as is, or they lose and have to pay a fine which also counts against the cap. That's perhaps the nuclear scenario from our standpoint, especially since Kovalchuk would go back to being UFA. Of course there are probably other scenarios that can come into play too but since this is so unprecedented information is still sketchy.
One thing's for sure, this offseason has had as many twists and turns as any playoff run, and it's not over yet.