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Official: Arbitrator Sustains NHL's Rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk Contract

It's time for Jay Grossman (w/ sunglasses in suit) and Ilya Kovalchuk (w/o sunglasses in suit) to figure out their next step.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
It's time for Jay Grossman (w/ sunglasses in suit) and Ilya Kovalchuk (w/o sunglasses in suit) to figure out their next step. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It took a little time past 5 PM EST, but the word broke out later.  First by Liz Mullen of the Sports Business Journal:

Breaking--Arbitrator rules in League's favor in Kovalchuk case, source says. #NHL

And later confirmed by both Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet and Craig Custance of the Sporting News TSN.

Hearing the grievance denied.

Got confirmation from a league source that the arbitrator ruled in favor of the NHL in the Kovalchuk case.

Well, that's that for now.  That means Article 11.6(iii) kicks in, making the $102 million over 17 year contract with the New Jersey Devils void.  The Devils have the $6 million cap hit removed; and Ilya Kovalchuk is now an unrestricted free agent.  No word on whether there's anything else to follow, nor any details on what Richard Bloch wrote in his decision.  All I have is this short report from saying the ruling was done because it was circumvention of the salary cap.  Which doesn't say too much other than that it confirms the initial reports on Twitter.

I'm not being daft, I don't see how it's circumvention, but I'm sure further information will come out later explaining it. I suppose I have to eat my share of crow given that I argued that it wasn't in the past weeks.  Clearly, based on the result, I was wrong.  So I'd like to know how I'm wrong.   I'm sure there has to be something, because the last I checked, the "spirit" of a contract doesn't really mean anything as opposed to the actual contract itself. But perhaps that's a faulty assumption of my own.

Needless to say, a lot of Devils fans are unhappy about the decision. Especially considering that nothing was (or likely will be) done to Tampa Bay for the Vincent Lecavalier contract; Vancouver for the Roberto Luongo contract; Philadelphia for the Chris Pronger contract; Chicago for the Marian Hossa contract; Calgary for the Miikka Kiprusoff contract; or Detroit for both the Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen contracts.   It may be silly to claim the NHL has it in for the Devils, but in the heat of the moment, it's a tempting thought.  In fact, even though I argued against re-signing Kovalchuk, I'm certainly annoyed and baffled by this turn of events.

That said, I'm going to hold off on the snark and rage and what-have-you until there are details as to why the rejection was sustained.    Right now, the situation is simple: Kovalchuk is an unrestricted free agent. The Devils can re-sign him to a different deal; or he can go elsewhere.  That's the reality, let's consider the next step.  Do the Devils re-sign him and for what? Do the Devils let him walk?

Feel free to discuss the matter in the comments, but please do be civil about it.  The rules still apply regardless of how frustrating this news may be.  UPDATES AFTER THE JUMP



It's been 2 hours since the word got out, and so more information was revealed. Thanks to the commenters who linked to it.

From kellyn, Lou Lamoriello has made a statement on the Devils' official website:

“We have reviewed and respect Arbitrator Bloch's ruling in the Kovalchuk matter.  We also note and appreciate his finding that nothing in his opinion should be read as suggesting that either the club or Ilya Kovalchuk operated in bad faith or on the basis of any assumption other than that the Standard Player Contract was fully compliant with the CBA. That has been our consistent position throughout.

“While we do not currently have a contract with Ilya Kovalchuk, discussions have resumed and we are hopeful that a contract will be reached that meets with the principles in Arbitrator Bloch's award and the NHL's approval."

Some say it's bold. Some say it's defiant.  I'd say that it appears the Devils would like to keep Kovalchuk regardless. We'll see.

From Kevin Sellathamby, the Sporting News (Craig Custance) has an excerpt from the ruling:

Excerpts from arbitrator Richard Bloch's ruling, obtained by

"In this case, the record strongly supports the claim this contract is "intended to, or has the effect" of defeating or circumventing the Salary Cap provisions of the CBA. The overall structure of this SPC reflects not so much the hope that Mr. Kovalchuk will be playing in those advanced years, but rather the expectation that he will not. This is a long contract --17 years -- the longest in NHL history. That, in itself, poses no contractual problem, for the reasons discussed above. But Kovalchuk is 27 years old, and the agreement contemplates his playing until just short of his 44th birthday. That is not impossible, but it is, at the least, markedly rare. Currently, only one player in the League has played past 43and, over the past 20 years only 6 of some 3400 players have played to 42...."

I want to believe there's more than this because I'm interpreting this as meaning the NHL can reject a deal if they just feel it's unreasonable that the player will play at a later age.   If I'm a player, I can't be happy that the NHL can take a deal I agreed to with a team and say "no" because they won't think I'll be playing later. But that's my take, feel free to interpret it differently.

Also, insert your own references to Marian Hossa and Roberto Luongo here.

The NHLPA released a short statement. Tom Gulitti tweeted it in here and here; thanks to kellyn for posting it in the comments.

NHLPA statement: "The NHLPA is disappointed with the arbitrator's ruling to uphold the NHL's rejection of the contract between the NJ Devs...

"...and Ilya Kovlachuk. The NHLPA is currently reviewing the decision and will have no further comment at this time."

I don't know what they could be ruling, but when the details come out, I have a sinking feeling I'm going to be "disappointed" by the NHLPA.  I hope I'm wrong.

UPDATE #2:  James Mirtle has a two crucial tweets from the ruling itself. Here's the first:

There is nothing about the Devils or Kovalchuk being fined for circumvention in the decision.

Here's the second, a clarification:

Let me rephrase that: Decision says there is no finding of bad faith or intent to circumvent cap by Devils/Kovalchuk.

I hope he's right on both counts.  Details are still coming out.

Please feel free to add additional links and comments in the comments. Remember to follow the rules everyone.