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NHL finally wages war against long-term deals

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman looks up in front of the draft board on stage during the first round of the 2010 NHL hockey draft in Los Angeles, California June 25, 2010.

MIKE BLAKE

Today's blog entry was originally titled "How long until the NHL's first 25-year deal?", something I'm convinced we would eventually see if Ilya Kovalchuk's contract was allowed to stand. The cap benefits are just too great with these long, long contracts for another team with an even younger star not to continue to push the envelope, and I believe that's a big reason the league struck Kovalchuk's 17-year deal down.

It's a contract that would have set a new precedent for just how long you can go - and opened the door for even younger players like Drew Doughty and Steven Stamkos to follow suit.

I was told heading into July 1 that the contract Kovalchuk's camp liked the best around the league was the 11-year, $85-million extension Vincent Lecavalier signed in July of 2008 that kicked in at age 29. Because Kovalchuk is two years younger, however, it made sense to me that he would require at least a 13-year deal to take him into an end-of-career type deal that's now become common.

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Agents call the type of contract Lecavalier has a deal with "a tail," meaning they come massively frontloaded and tail off toward the latter years in order to drop the cap hit. Lecavalier's contract isn't nearly as extreme as Kovalchuk's rejected one, but he does receive $78.5-million (or 92.4%) of the deal in the first eight years.

By age 37, Lecavalier has only $6.5-million over three years to collect on the deal, and can simply retire after collecting $9.81-million a season with a $7.73-million cap hit between now and 2016-17.

That certainly could be viewed as cap circumvention - albeit not nearly as blatant as the Kovalchuk contract.

One wonders, however, where exactly the line is drawn? Had Kovalchuk signed a 13-year deal, with the dollars slightly more evenly spread out, would that have received approval? How about 14 years? Fifteen?

The problem with the league's obviously loophole-filled CBA is that there is zero clarity on issues like this. Where there should be limits on term or "tails" etc., there are none, and we're left with a looming battle between the NHL and NHLPA over circumvention when other contracts of similar design were allowed to stand after brief review.

The problem with allowing contracts like Kovalchuk's is that they are creating an imbalance in the NHL, one where the "smart" thing to do is sign a silly deal, one even Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said Tuesday the league "shouldn't have." Alex Ovechkin's $9.5-million annual cap hit, for example, now looks exceedingly large, as many lesser stars have gotten similar money but with a "tail" on their deals, saving their teams at least a couple million in cap space in the process.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said as much Tuesday in comparing the deal he signed with his star and the now-rejected Kovalchuk contract.

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"I don't like the structure of the deal," Leonsis said. "I don't think it's right, but I don't have a say in it.

"I did a long-term deal with Alex Ovechkin when he was 22 or 23 years old and he'll be coming off it when he's 36, and it's a straight line for his salary-cap hit. And the way this deal was structured, it makes the salary cap hit different, and maybe not appropriate."

It's worth noting that giving Lecavalier or Ovechkin or Kovalchuk $10-million a season isn't really the problem. After all, Paul Kariya had a $10-million per season deal a decade ago with Anaheim. That sort of money's not new. The term - and how it can be used to twist the contract's cap hit - is.

The NHL should have seen this coming, if not when the CBA was designed, then soon after. We were always headed down this road, and even if this rejection stands, there'll be more pushing of the envelope to come.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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