Will Ilya Kovalchuk become the next Alexander Radulov?
The last few weeks have focused on the trials and tribulations of the Ilya Kovalchuk contract. Initially it was New Jersey, and then it was LA. Then NJ again and then again LA. Back and forth, back and forth. Then the bombshell came with the New Jersey Devils signing Kovalchuk to a 17 year/$102 million contract. Just looking at the terms of the contract, it was easy to see how this was a direct attempt to circumvent the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
There isn’t a hockey website that hasn’t dissected the unfairness of this contract. Does anyone really expect Kovalchuk to play until he is 45? NO. Those last 7 years of the contract are fluff years designed to lower the cap hit for the team. Kovalchuk will retire after the 2018 or 2019 season and the team will be off the hook for the remainder of the cap hit.
However, there is another side of the contract that has yet to be told. What happens if the salary cap continues to go up year over year? What happens if by 2016 the salary cap is $75 million? What if it is $85 million? Under these two scenarios, the top salary a player could receive is $15 and $17 million a year respectively. What if by then there are 15-20 players who are making more than Kovalchuk?
Let’s get a few facts on the table. Kovalchuk doesn’t care about winning the Stanley Cup. He doesn’t care about winning. All he cares about is being the top paid player in the NHL. If he really cared about winning the Stanley Cup, he would realize that since the lockout in 2004/2005, the only team with a player in the top 5 of league salary to win the cup was Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby. If Kovalchuk really wanted the Cup, wouldn’t he have signed a 2 or 3 year contract with Vancouver, Detroit, or Pittsburgh for $7 million a year? These teams would have cleared cap space to fit him in if he accepted a discounted salary. No, instead, Kovalchuk went after the biggest contract in the NHL.
So back to my initial question. What happens if 5 years from now Kovalchuk doesn’t feel his contract is paying him what he ‘deems’ himself worth? What if he thinks he should be getting $15 – $17 million a year? The NHL does not allow teams to renegotiate contracts so Kovalchuk would be stuck with his ‘insulting’ $102 million deal. What do you think a player who only cares about money would do? Can you say KHL? Take it to the bank. If the salary cap continues to go up and player salaries continue to rise, Kovalchuk will eventually grow unhappy with his contract. With no other recourse, he will pull an Alexander Radulov and jump to the KHL. Radulov, you remember, skipped out on his contract with the Nashville Predators because he didn’t feel they were willing to resign him to a contract worthy of his lofty salary expectations. He didn’t wait until he was a free agent. He skipped out with one-year left and jumped over to the KHL to make more money. Like in Radulov’s case, KHL teams wouldn’t have to match the top salaries in the NHL in order to sign Kovalchuk. They could offer him $12 million, as there is no income tax in Russia for the players in the KHL. $12 million in Russia is the equivalent of $17 million in the US.
In addition, the increasing salaries might not be the only reason Kovalchuk considers this option. What if he doesn’t live up to his expected performance? What if he only puts up 30 goals a year and 70 points? What if the media and the Devils fan base turn on him and make him the target of their anger. Why would he stick around and put up with the ridicule? It would be just as easy to return to his mother Russia, get paid the same, or even more, and not have to deal with the being in the spotlight day in, day out. He could have a gorgeous dacha in the woods, play hockey, make millions, speak Russian, and probably be perfectly happy. Remember, he doesn’t care about winning.
Singling out Kovalchuk, though, is only an example. This same scenario could play out with any player who is tied to a long term (10+) year contract. How will Marian Hossa feel if 20-30 players start making more than his $7.9 million salary?
The CBA is broken and the affects of long-term contracts will take years to play out. The implications are far reaching and in an era of greedy athletes you have to assume every possible scenario will occur.
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Written by Mark Jasper