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July 1 is the Earliest Day New Jersey Devils Can Sign-and-Trade Ilya Kovalchuk

Pierre LeBrun and Bob McKenzie reported important details regarding Ilya Kovalchuk and his path to returning to the NHL. This news post points out the details and discusses who has leverage in this likely sign-and-trade situation (not the Devils).

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 12 - Finland v Russia
Kovalchuk may be leaping for joy today. He and his representation can now negotiate deals with other NHL teams for a sign-and-trade.
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

With all due respect to Viktor Loov getting a contract today (Aside: which surprised me at all - my quick take: Eh, whatever, it’s for Binghamton), there was some important news today regarding the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk. You know Ilya Kovalchuk. He’s the guy the Devils went well out of their way to trade for, sign for a contract that was rejected, get hit with a penalty for said initial contract, sign to a second contract, and was left by Kovalchuk who retired in 2013 and signed a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. Oh, he also played hockey really, really well in the interim. Back in late April, reports came out that Kovalchuk wanted to return to the NHL. Today, details about what’s going to happen next in The Kovy Affair ‘17 were revealed.

Why am I calling it that? Namely to attempt a different word than “Sweepstakes,” since the “winner” will have to do more than just convince Kovalchuk to sign with them. This is a unique situation in this league and so it deserves a unique name. Given that there’s been previous situations involving Kovalchuk from the trade to the contract to the retirement, it deserves a year designation to set it apart. Lastly, it adds a level of allure to the whole thing. This isn’t your standard negotiation; this is The Kovy Affair ‘17.

Anyway, feel free to ignore that. Here’s the news about how this will play out. I first learned of it from Pierre LeBrun on Twitter, so I will cite him. The following three tweets spell out the news:

Jay Grossman was Kovalchuk’s agent back when he was in the NHL. I’m not sure if he also represented him in Russia, but that he’s involved and speaking to the media plus this confirms that Kovalchuk is serious about returning to the NHL.

This is the first important detail. Grossman and Kovalchuk are free to talk with any other team about a potential contract. They do not have to wait for the time frame that other unrestricted free agents may be allowed to talk with teams. They can get a deal in principle in place. They will also have to communicate said deal to Devils general manager Ray Shero, which would then drive a deal to be made for the second half of the “sign and trade.”

This is the second, more important wrinkle. Kovalchuk cannot sign a contract until July 1. This means this sign-and-trade cannot be done at the expansion draft or the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. It cannot be done until Free Agency Frenzy begins on July 1. (And I don’t know how a team having to make a deal with New Jersey on top of paying Kovalchuk is winning a sweepstakes. Another reason why I’m calling it The Kovy Affair ‘17.)

What about his rights? Well, Bob McKenzie has a third detail about that:

When Kovalchuk retired, he was placed on the Voluntary Retirement List. Unless he sits out of hockey for a year or he gets approved from all thirty teams, he has to sign with New Jersey to play this season. Which is what he wants to do. In order to play for anyone else, the Devils have to sign him first to bring him off the list. Then he can be traded to that team.

So let’s piece this all together.

  • Kovalchuk wants to play in the NHL next season.
  • Kovalchuk presumably does not want to play for the Devils, which is why Grossman got the OK from Shero to talk with other teams. I do not blame Kovalchuk for this. He’s 34, he’s coming off knee surgery on top of previous injuries, and a rather successful four years in the KHL. He’s not coming back to the NHL to play for a team that finished 28th and may not likely make the playoffs next season. He wants to be on a team that can contend now.
  • Kovalchuk and Grossman can talk with other teams to set a deal in place.
  • Grossman and Kovalchuk will communicate that deal to Shero.
  • Shero can then negotiate a trade.
  • Once all parties are in agreement, then on July 1 at the earliest, the Devils can sign Kovalchuk to the agreed-upon contract and make the agreed-upon trade. Hence, the sign-and-trade.
  • We all can move on and/or boo the living hell out of Kovalchuk when he comes to the Rock in 2017-18. Whatever.

The good news is that this appears to be the roadmap of what will happen with The Kovy Affair ‘17. Word may get out about who would sign him and what the trade may be before July 1. It won’t involve the expansion draft or this year’s draft at all. Until then, there will be plenty of suspense.

The bad news is that the Devils really don’t have a lot of leverage here. Signing Kovalchuk to a contract is easy enough. The Devils have loads of cap space and even if they somehow get up to the ceiling, they can go over it on July 1 by as much as 10% of the cap ceiling. They can afford to sign the contract for someone else. But the trade is the tough part. The exciting thing is that Shero will get something for Kovalchuk. The sad thing is that Shero really can’t ask for a whole lot. Demanding that top four defenseman or that top six forward the Devils may need now may also drive a team to walk away from making a trade at all - which could kill the deal for Kovalchuk at all. It might happen, but it’ll take a team to really want Kovalchuk and other teams to really want him to leverage a more desirable transaction. My point is that I wouldn’t get my hopes up and expect a significant asset (e.g. top minute players, high draft picks) to come back in this sign-and-trade.

Further, if anyone has the leverage, the hand, the juice, etc. here, then it’s Kovalchuk. He remains the driver of this whole process. Kovalchuk and his people can go freely discuss contracts right now. There are multiple possible ways that this can go awry. If other teams do not value him and give him the contract he wants, then there’s no signing for a sign-and-trade. Kovalchuk now is not likely the same player who got big dollars in 2010; I wouldn’t expect a team to offer him a massive contract right out of the gate regardless of his four seasons in the KHL. If the teams that do offer him something are the teams he’s not interested in, then that’s a problem too. If the teams he wants do want to make an offer but do not or cannot make a deal with Shero, then that’s another roadblock. If this is really a ploy to get SKA St. Petersburg or some other team in the KHL to provide a more lucrative contract than what he just earned, then he could just as easily go back to the KHL if he gets what he wants there. Especially if the contract offers from the NHL are not as good as he hoped. Lastly, Kovalchuk may figure this whole process is silly, decide to just sit out for a year, and then be free to negotiate and sign a contract with anyone instead of hoping Shero and the GM of the team he wants to play for can agree to a trade. It’s his life, he can do as he wants. The next step in this affair is his and it’s a big one.

The latter two possibilities may seem far-fetched on a day where the media and Shero himself confirmed that Kovalchuk wants to come back to play in the NHL next season. I remind you that this is a player who voluntarily retired to leave the NHL right before he was to make over $11 million per year in salary for the next four years and went play in the KHL after said “retirement.” I would not put anything past him given his history with this organization.

In any case, July 1 is the big day for the resolution of The Kovy Affair ‘17. We may learn what the actual sign-and-trade may be before that, but it cannot actually happen until then at the earliest. His rights cannot be dealt before then. It will not play into what the Devils do for the expansion draft or the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Given that Shero has to be careful with any trade negotiations and that the proverbial ball is in Kovalchuk and his people’s proverbial court for the contract, the Devils do not have a lot of leverage in this situation. They’ll get something out of it, so there’s that. Let’s just hope the something is at least something decent.