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Kovalchuk contract creates big mess for NHL

Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils poses

Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils poses for photographs following the media opportunity announcing his contract renewal at the Prudential Center. (July 20, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

There were statements from all sides of the Ilya Kovalchuk contract saga Wednesday, with the NHL saying the 17-year, $102-million deal Kovalchuk agreed to with the Devils is a "circumvention of the Collective Bargaining Agreement."

The NHL Players' Association, which has until Monday to decide whether to file a grievance against the league, said it is "evaluating the options available to us under the terms of the CBA."

And, lastly, Devils president Lou Lamoriello said: "We are extremely disappointed that the NHL has decided to reject the contract of Ilya Kovalchuk. The contract complies with the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement."

Leaving aside the strange circumstance that could have the Players' Association grieving against the league on a contract agreed upon by one of the pillars of NHL management, this is a complete mess. And the NHL has a lot of questions to answer.

Most prominently is why the league, which approved similar contracts for Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo (12 years, $64 million, with $57 million due the first eight years); the Blackhawks' Marian Hossa (12 years, $63.3 million, with $55 million due the first seven years) and Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg (12 years, $73 million, with $67 million due the first nine years), would reject Kovalchuk's deal.

The terms are somewhat longer, but length is not the issue.

"There is no rule in the CBA to prevent length of contract. None," said Ian Pulver, an agent who was the NHLPA's general counsel during the last CBA negotiations. "How does the league know [Kovalchuk won't be playing at 44, when the deal expires]? No one knows."

What we do know is that, with the CBA due to expire after the 2011-12 season, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is drawing a line in the sand on the creative deals that teams are using to keep or add stars.

The Devils may very well lose Kovalchuk after all the negotiating. If the NHLPA files a grievance, it goes to arbitration - except there's no arbitrator designated for such cases, so it could drag on for weeks, even months.

That's time Kovalchuk doesn't have. He took his time deciding on a team, spurning the Kings and SKA St. Petersburg of Russia's KHL. His contract is null and void now, and will be until the Devils rework it or until an arbitrator hands down a ruling.

Kovalchuk could easily take the millions offered by St. Petersburg and head off to Russia, which would be the worst possible outcome for Bettman and the NHL - turning away a marquee player who wanted to be part of the league.

But the Players' Association is in disarray, without a director. Does it have the fortitude to stare down Bettman on this?

The easiest solution is for Lamoriello - who expressed his distaste for such long-term deals Tuesday - and Kovalchuk to redo the deal and absorb a higher average annual value than the $6 million from the first deal.

The alternative could leave everyone feeling as if the NHL is headed in the wrong direction once again.

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