Mark down the date boys and girls. July 20th, 2010 officially marks the day that the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was rendered completely meaningless. No need to read it. Not even a skim is necessary. Because now we have all learned that regardless of what the letter of the law says, or the precedents that have applied in the past, the NHL can do whatever it wants to protect themselves from the CBA.

The NHL has rejected Ilya Kovalchuk’s 17-year, $102M contract with the Devils on the basis that it circumvents the spirit of the CBA. The league suggests that neither the Devils nor Kovalchuk actually believe that Ilya would suit up for the entirety of the deal, which would have expired when he is 44 years old. Kovalchuk would have earned $550,000 for the last 5 years of his deal, making his salary cap hit a very manageable $6M per year. The NHL charges that those final years were added on for the sole purpose of reducing that cap hit…

…Ummm, duh? Where have you been NHL? You’ve stood idly by as ridiculous contract after ridiculous contract has been made in the exact same spirit as this Kovalchuk deal, and now you’re blowing the whistle? Granted, Kovy’s deal was easily the most blatant case of cap hit reduction the league has ever seen, but it is far from the first one. Let’s not forget these deals that have all been signed within the last calendar year:

1) Marian Hossa (Blackhawks): Signed July ’09 … 12 years, $62.8M total deal … $5.23M cap hit … Next Year’s Salary: $7.9M … Final Year’s Salary: $750K … Age at End of Contract: 42

2) Roberto Luongo (Canucks): Signed September ’09 … 12 years, $64M total deal … $5.3M cap hit … Next Year’s Salary: $10M … Final Year’s Salary: $1M … Age at End of Contract: 43

3) Chris Pronger (Flyers): Signed July ’09 … 7-year extension, $34.9M … $5M cap hit … Next Year’s Salary: $7.6M … Final Year’s Salary: $525K … Age at End of Contract: 42

I could also include Marc Savard, Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, and Rick DiPietro on this list, but I think you get the idea…

This is purely a case of the NHL trying to preserve as much of the current CBA’s credibility as possible before negotiations open for a new one. But that credibility is now at an all-time low, and they only have themselves to blame.

For them to cry foul now makes the league look terrible. It’s a classic case of being RE-active instead of PRO-active. The NHL is like the mother who knows her child has been stealing from the neighbors, but doesn’t discipline him until she catches him digging through her purse.

At the end of the day, the NHL would be much better off without contracts like the one the Devils attempted to give Kovalchuk…even Lou Lamoriello knows this. But the fact of the matter is that the Devils abided not only by the letter of the CBA, but also by the precedents that have been set by so many of the contracts handed out prior to this one…

In the meantime, Kovalchuk is once again a free agent. I would expect the Players’ Association to file a grievance in the upcoming days. The burden will fall entirely on the NHL to prove that this deal is somehow different than all the other ones that came before it. And to them I say, good luck with that one. Comparing this contract to the other frontloaded deals we’ve seen is like comparing apples to…more apples.

In the meantime, Kovalchuk insists he didn’t take the Devils’ deal for the money. He says he did it to win championships. If that is the case, this speed bump shouldn’t derail the Devs’ mission to have him on the ice come October. But Kovy certainly does have one of the more interesting free agency situations on his hands that I can ever recall. One-hour ESPN special anybody?


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