Yesterday, Richard Bloch sustained the NHL's rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk's contract with the New Jersey Devils. The $102 million over 17 year deal was voided and so Kovalchuk is now an unrestricted free agent. While the situation with Kovalchuk hasn't changed beyond the rejection yet, something important was revealed last night. Late last night, Eric Macramella of Offside: A Sports Law Blog and of Team1200 posted his own analysis complete with a PDF of Bloch's decision. If you have any interest in what was decided, then it's a must-read. Thanks to Greg Wyshynski for tweeting it, which caught my attention (and sorry for the lack of a hat tip in the FanShot about it, I'll make up for it here).
As an aside, isn't it fantastic we're in a time where such information can be made public and reviewable. If we're willing to put the time and effort into it, we can read the decision, review the CBA, look over rules, etc. and come to our own conclusions instead of just relying on someone else's interpretation.
Speaking of interpretation, Richard Bloch's interpretation of Article 26 was the crux to making the decision he did. In fact, I have to concur with Tom Gulitti that a part of page 15 of the decision is crucial to understanding his ruling. From the PDF of the decision, here's the section (bold emphasis is mine):
One accepts, therefore, that the CBA does not speak to the length of an SPC, the compensation limit in any single contract, the salary structure in terms of back or front loading or, generally, any affiliated player movement restrictions. But, the language of Article 26(3) speaks loudly to the parties’ intention that one look not only to whether the individual terms of the agreement conform but also to whether the agreement, taken in its entirety, may be said to have been intended, or even if not intended, has the effect of defeating or Circumventing the CBA. The possibility, therefore, that a Club and Player could construct an agreement, the individual terms of which are inoffensive but which, when taken together, challenge the provisions of the CBA is precisely within the contemplation of the signatories to the CBA.
From there, Bloch explains that while how the contract was structured, the assignment of no movement and no trade clauses, and the length of the contract are all valid on their own, in the combination of all three, he finds intent of circumvention. While I can't say I agree, the ruling is binding
However, it just raises another, incredibly important question that I, you, and about 30 general managers are asking: What exactly is the "line in the sand" for future NHL contracts? It's clear the NHL was successful in rejecting this contract, but what about future deals? I explain how further confusing
That Bloch cites multiple aspects of the Kovalchuk deal to concluding there was "intent" in circumventing the cap in his ruling obfuscates this matter. In fact, it's so confusing, Greg Wyshynski took it upon himself to do some myth-busting in this also-must-read post at Puck Daddy. I'd pay attention to Myth #3, since Bloch never ruled the deal was too long - just that it was too long and the usage of NTCs and NMCs along with the tail-end of the deal suggests an out for the Devils.
So does this mean the Devils can offer Kovalchuk a 17 year deal, but just structured differently? Could they just give him a NMC for the whole deal and would that make it OK? Could they use the same structure but just remove a few years?
To add further confusion, Bloch mentions in a footnote about how the Marian Hossa, Marc Savard, Roberto Luongo, and Chris Pronger deals are similar. Yes, he also states that Kovalchuk's contract was more "dramatic," but I don't think he brought them up just for the sake of bringing them up. Even if the league doesn't do anything with their investigations into the Hossa, Luongo, and Pronger deals (which are still on going); would they accept future deals just like those? Or is Kovalchuk's now-rejected contract the sole standard of what would be accepted or rejected? What's the limit on how much a player can receive before a contract goes into a tail: is it greater or less than 93.6%? Are the posits by others, like these at Gabriella Fundaro at Garden State Skates, possible? (h/t: Puck Daddy)
I don't want to be snarky, but the answer may just be this: whatever the NHL feels is acceptable.
I can't imagine GMs or players can be too happy with that possibility. It's a new uncertainty for management, and I don't think any GM would be happy to require Gary Bettman or Bill Daly or someone else at the NHL to "bless" the contract in advance of offering it. Players certainly can't be pleased that their options at getting the deals they want now have a new risk. If the NHL can do this to Lou Lamoriello, a highly respected figure in the league, and Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the top players of the game, then who's to say this can't happen to anyone else?
So I ask the turn the question to you. What do you think the "line in the sand" is for future NHL contracts? OK, it's not really up for us to decide. Let me emphasize that I don't want to know what you think of the ruling or what will happen next. That's not to be discussed here. Do not discuss it here. Discuss in the comments what the "line in the sand" is for future contracts. Thank you for reading.