In Lou We Trust

In what is undoubtedly the biggest news to come out of NHL free agency 2010, Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk has officially re-signed with the New Jersey Devils. Kovalchuk initially rejected the Devs’ 7-year, $60M offer and requested one closer resembling 10 years and $100M. It was then that he started flirting with the Los Angeles Kings, and even considered playing for a team from the KHL in St. Petersburg, Russia…

So when reports surfaced that the Devils had indeed given Kovalchuk his $100M+ contract over 17 years, I nearly sprayed my morning coffee out of my mouth and onto the computer screen. But after giving myself time to look at it from all angles, let’s take a look at why the historically frugal Lou Lamoriello would orchestrate this behemoth of a contract…

Any Devils’ fan keeping close watch on this situation should be fully aware that Zach Parise is a restricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season. So seeing Lamoriello toss around $100M+ might be the slightest bit disconcerting. But if we’ve learned anything in the time that Lou has held the reins of this franchise, it’s that he may be the best forward thinker in the game today…

By giving Kovalchuk a frontloaded 17-year contract, it allows Ilya to earn about $8M per year in the beginning years of the deal, but keeps his cap hit very manageable. In other words, Kovalchuk will be earning top dollar while in his prime, and will make significantly less once he starts approaching his 40’s. This leaves room for the Devils to trade him once his skills start diminishing without having to worry about other teams shying away from a megabucks contract…

And throughout all of this, at no point will Kovalchuk be a major roadblock in keeping the Devils from getting under the salary cap. The extreme length of the deal keeps his cap hit (which is calculated as total value of the contract divided by the length of the deal) extremely low. This is especially true by comparison to most of the other star players in the league (Alexander Ovechkin takes up $9.5M of the Capitals’ salary cap while Kovy figures to have a cap hit of around $6M). The Devils could very well pull a similar maneuver with Parise next season, so that both players could be getting paid handsomely while not causing the team to be over-budget. And more importantly, both players would still be wearing red and black.

The only immediate issue this contract creates is that, for the time being, the Devils are in fact about $3M over the salary cap. So what to do? There are a few options:

1) Get Brian Rolston to waive his no-trade clause and ship him and his $5M cap hit out of town. You could honestly trade him for a steak dinner or maybe a bag of pucks and it would still accomplish the goal…OR…

2) Trade Dainus Zubrus for a low-priced asset or a draft pick and clear his $3M+ cap hit off the books. I would suggest replacing his roster spot with one of the up-and-comers we saw in limited time last season like Matt Corrente, or maybe even 2008 1st-round draft pick Mattias Tedenby.

As far as the 2010-11 season outlook is concerned, I for one cannot recall a year in which the Devils’ prospects looked rosier before the season started. Despite losing the very talented Paul Martin to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, Lamoriello replaced him with offensive defenseman Henrik Tallinder, and rugged shot-blocker Anton Volchenkov. Both players bring skill sets that were desperately missed last season, especially in the disappointing playoff series against the Flyers.

Jason Arnott is back as well, and now that Kovalchuk is signed, think about how dangerous the Devils’ power play can be. A unit that was in the middle of the pack last season can now benefit from having Kovy and his heat-seeking shooting skills at the point to go along with Arnott’s 6’3”, 220 lb. frame screening the goaltender.

The overall point here, Devils’ fans, is RELAX. Lou Lamoriello did not mortgage the future of the franchise with this contract. If anything, he has set the Devils up to have the most talented roster in franchise history when the puck drops this October. This also does NOT mean that Zach Parise is a goner next season. Zach is undoubtedly the best thing to happen to the Devils since that guy Brodeur fell out of the sky and landed in between the goalposts. Do you really think Lou hasn’t considered this?

In a universe of such uncertainty, there are a few things in this world that I’ve learned I can count on: the sun will rise in the east, it will set in the west, and Lou Lamoriello will keep the New Jersey Devils competitive. Simply put, there is no one better at what they do.

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