What if there had been an Ilya Kovalchuk, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt line going into next season? At age 39, perhaps Kovalchuk would have been destined for the third line with some combination of Erik Haula, Tomas Tatar, Andreas Johnsson, and Dawson Mercer. It’s likely this isn’t exactly what the Devils and their fans were thinking when the team signed Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102MM contract back in July 2010. After all, Hughes was just nine-years-old, current team captain Nico Hischier was 11, and All Star defenseman Dougie Hamilton was looking to boost his stock in the 2011 draft with a big year for the Niagra IceDogs.
In reality, nothing went to plan when the Devils and then-GM Lou Lamoriello signed the 17-year pact with Kovalchuk, the NHL taking issue with it as a form of salary cap circumvention, an arbitrator agreeing with them. This would force a negotiation between the league and the NHLPA on how to handle the structure of long-term contracts. On top of Kovalchuk, the NHL had been looking into the contracts of Chris Pronger, Roberto Luongo, Marc Savard, and Marian Hossa, all of whom had received long-term, front-loaded contracts that carried salaries at or near the league minimum in the final few years, which served to bring down the overall cap hit of the deal.
In sum, the league and the players agreed to rules affecting new contracts (as of September, 2010) for five years or longer that lasted at least to a player’s 41st birthday which would give a more accurate reflection of the salary the player was earning. The agreement also made sure the issue wouldn’t automatically carry over into the next CBA, and of course, rules on contracts have changed dramatically since the 2012-13 lockout. Now, seven or eight-year maximums, consistent cap hits, 35+ contracts, and the like regulate at least that form of salary cap circumvention.
After the dispute, New Jersey and Kovalchuk agreed on a revised 15-year, $100MM contract on September 3, 2010 that would run through the 2024-25 season, carrying a cap hit of $6.67MM. The matter now settled, the Devils were looking ahead to their fourth Stanley Cup with their superstar in hand. Of course, as we know, the drama was far from over. During the first three years, Kovalchuk would be solid, but New Jersey would miss the playoffs in two of the three years. However, Kovalchuk and the Devils would take the Los Angeles Kings to Game Six of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, the winger playing a big part of that run.
Unfortunately for New Jersey, during the 2012-13 lockout, Kovalchuk would return home to Russia, playing with SKA St. Petersburg, who he had considered signing with during his 2010 free agency. The experience playing close to home and having his family nearby had an impact on Kovalchuk, who informed Lamoriello of his intention to return home to Russia after the shortened 2012-13 campaign. At just 30-years-old, Kovalchuk voluntarily retired from the NHL following the 2012-13 season, leaving 12 years and $77MM on the table. The Devils, who had already lost Zach Parise to free agency the year prior, were given a yearly $250K cap-recapture penalty, which is in effect through 2024-25, but were handed the forward’s cap hit back.
The 2013 offseason saw New Jersey bring in Jaromir Jagr to replace Kovalchuk’s production, the 41-year-old turning in an impressive 67-point campaign, but the Devils would miss out on the playoffs, finishing with 88 points. The team struggled to start the 2014-15 season, firing Head Coach Peter DeBoer and Lamoriello leaving that spring for an opportunity with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The organization would head into a full-scale rebuild, one which has, outside of a 2017-18 playoff appearance lead by Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, lasted through this offseason. Things look to have finally turned a corner in New Jersey, lead by Hughes, Hischier, Mercer, Hamilton, and a world class group of prospects including Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, and Alexander Holtz, but the aftermath of trying to re-sign and then losing Kovalchuk is apparent.
The Devils and their fans may, and rightfully so, attribute this long, painful rebuild at least in part to Kovalchuk’s abrupt departure, however they may have been best-served by it. At the time of signing, New Jersey was expecting Kovalchuk to lead a team backstopped by an aging Martin Brodeur and lead up front by an older Patrik Elias. Though Cory Schneider was able to step-up as one of the league’s better goaltenders during their rebuild, the team didn’t really have the younger, supporting cast to put around Kovalchuk as he entered his 30’s. And, having his relatively large cap hit on the books would have made doing so, and likely rebuilding on-the-fly, rather difficult. That would have in turn likely delayed the inevitable: a lengthy, painful rebuild.
As for Kovalchuk, the winger got his wish to head home to play in his native Russia and have his family nearby, something he accounted for when he left the $77MM on the table back in New Jersey. He would spend five more seasons with St. Petersburg, serving as one of the league’s best players on a premier team. Following the 2017-18 season, the Devils’ NHL rights over the forward expired and a 35-year-old Kovalchuk sought a return to the NHL. He’d sign a three-year, $18.75MM contract with the Los Angeles Kings, but had his contract terminated part-way through the 2019-20 season.
The Kovalchuk mega-deal, whether it be the original or the revised, wasn’t the first or the last handed out by an NHL organization, but holds significant weight in NHL history. First, one of the league’s very best players leaving in his prime, with more money than most players will ever earn left on the table was one of the biggest and strangest transactions in hockey’s history, perhaps in sports history period. Further, the original deal and the revised, provided a roadmap that would change the framework of the NHL’s contract and salary cap systems for the long-haul. The changes brought about by the first contract sparked the league’s desire for change, which became a focal point for the 2012-13 lockout.