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There's an easy fix for a deal with the Devils. Easy, but not likely

Instead of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, my summer reading list features that old holiday standby, the NHL's collective bargaining agreement. Nothing says "summertime and the living is easy" better than the broad, wordy and often ambiguous document that is at the centre of the dispute between the league and the New Jersey Devils over the 17-year, $102-million contract (all currency U.S.) signed earlier this week by star free agent Ilya Kovalchuk.

The league took the unprecedented step of rejecting Kovalchuk's contract late Tuesday night on the grounds that it circumvented the NHL salary cap. Officially, deputy commissioner Bill Daly didn't specify the grounds under which the league rejected the contract, only that it did - and that any number of next steps can happen now, depending upon how the Devils, Kovalchuk and most importantly, the NHL Players' Association want to react.

The NHLPA has up to five days to grieve the decision and in all likelihood will. As an organization, the NHLPA is still in the process of reinventing itself under new leadership - likely to be fronted by long-time baseball union chief Donald Fehr, who many believe will be the organization's next incoming executive director.

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The NHL has signed off on other contracts structured in similar fashion to Kovalchuk's but rejected this one because it pushed the envelope just a little too far for their tastes.

Their feeling was that the final five years of the contract, which would pay Kovalchuk only $550,000 per season, would almost certainly not be fulfilled by a player who would earn $98.5-million of the $102-million face value of the contract in its first 11 years, setting himself up nicely for retirement at the age of 38.

No one can absolutely see into the future, but logic would suggest that Kovalchuk - who wanted a de facto 10 years at $10-million per season in this negotiation - wouldn't play up to six additional years at the end of his career for comparative peanuts.

Those final five seasons were tacked on at the end of the deal simply as a means of bringing the salary-cap average down to a more friendly $6-million, a break the Devils need to get compliant with the cap this year and to have some negotiating room to lock up rising star Zach Parise next year.

Thus, you have what amounts to circumvention in the NHL's eyes, and it is a case they'd be prepared to litigate if necessary.

The NHLPA, meanwhile, is saying little publicly about this matter, but they will ultimately need to take their cue from Kovalchuk and his agent Jay Grossman as to how to proceed. If the dispute goes to arbitration, the PA lawyers could argue there are a handful of important precedents on their side: a couple of deals signed by the Detroit Red Wings with Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen and then the controversial Marian Hossa contract agreed to with the Chicago Blackhawks last summer.

Hossa's contract may be the best rough comparable to Kovalchuk's. Hossa's deal pays him $63.3-million contract over a 12-year-period that began at the age of 30. He earns $7.9-million for the first seven years, then $4-million for the eighth year and then drops off a cliff to four final years at $1-million per season.

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Kovalchuk's deal is similarly structured, only more extreme. It starts with two years at $6-million, is followed by five years at $11.5-million and then falls precipitously until it bottoms out at those last five years for $550,000.

On a practical level, the fix here is relatively simple for the Devils and Kovalchuk, provided both sides were prepared to give a little. They could simply lop off the final two years of the contract, meaning it would expire when Kovalchuk turns 42, the same age Hossa will be when his deal runs out. If they up the salary in the final three years to $1-million, then that too would make it mirror Hossa's previously approved deal far more closely.

Under this scenario, the Devils' annual salary-cap charge for Kovalchuk's contract would rise by almost three-quarters of a million dollars - not an ideal outcome, but one that they might be able to live with.

The alternatives are less appealing. Kovalchuk could dig in his heels, or the Devils might determine they cannot afford to incur a single dollar more than the current $6-million cap charge. An expedited arbitration hearing would then be the preferable next step for Kovalchuk, if such a thing is even possible, given the complexities involved in the CBA-mandated arbitration process.

If the arbitrator ruled in their favour, then the deal would stand and the league would walk away, tail between the legs. If it went the other way, then they would be obliged to follow the NHL's directive and go back to the drawing board.

Accordingly, there is an easy way out here - or a much more complicated, convoluted path down which both sides can go. Given the NHL's history with the NHLPA, Kovalchuk's willingness to negotiate hard, and the Devils' track record of playing games with the CBA, you'd have to assume the worst - and that this dispute will linger on indefinitely. It is just the way of today's litigious pro sports world.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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