Kovalchuk Chaos: NHL Gives Players’ Association Ultimatum

Is Hossa's deal in question?

On Wednesday afternoon, the NHL’s deadline to either accept or reject the New Jersey Devils latest attempt to sign star forward Ilya Kovalchuk was pushed back to Friday at 5 PM ET. The reason might lead to a historic series of events that could unfold in the next two days.

In a story first reported by Larry Brooks of the NY Post, the NHL has given the Players’ Association an ultimatum that must be agreed upon before the league will accept Kovalchuk’s re-worked 15-year, $100M contract. And Kovalchuk’s contract isn’t the only paper in question.

According to Brooks’ sources with the NHLPA, the league has singled out the contracts of Kovalchuk, Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo and Chicago forward Marian Hossa as questionable and reviewable. However, the league will overlook their concerns on all three contracts if the NHLPA agrees to a number of changes to the collective bargaining agreement immediately.

The two conditions that must be amended in the CBA, according to Brooks, are:

  • That the cap hit on future multi-year contracts will not count any seasons that end with the player over 40 years of age. The cap hit would be calculated on the average of the salary up through age 40 only.
  • That the cap hit on future contracts longer than five years will be calculated under a formula granting additional weight to the five years with the highest salary.

If the NHLPA does not agree to these specific amendments, sources indicate the league will not only deny Kovalchuk’s contract with the Devils, but will also veto the Canuck’s deal with Luongo and will “investigate” the deal between Hossa and Chicago.

There are a number of issues with this report that make these new pieces of information a potentially historic problem for the NHL.

First, there are other contracts that could, and should, be an issue for the NHL. Other than Luongo and Hossa, there are deals in place for players like Chris Pronger, Danny Briere, Marc Savard, Henrik Lundqvist and others that would have to be considered reviewable under these amendments.

Indeed, the contract extensions of Savard and Pronger would appear to be more open to the league taking action than Hossa’s in Chicago because they don’t begin until the 2010-11 season; Hossa has already played a season under his deal.

What does the league hope to achieve by “investigating” Hossa’s deal after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup? Are they going to schedule a parade in Philly for a team that has just as many questionable contracts as the Hawks had in the Finals?

Secondly, the bigger issue with this ultimatum is that the CBA has already been extended through 2012 by the NHLPA. By definition, the CBA is not open to review until that time. However, the league now wants to make changes when the CBA is not open to discussion. By forcing the players to accept their ultimatum, the league is almost guaranteeing that there will be significant issues before a new CBA is put into place in two years.

With statistics indicating that the NHL is near an all-time high in popularity, and with the previous work stoppage almost completely in the rear view mirror (finally), making a bold move like this indicates that the league is ready and willing to stand strong against the players.

In a western movie, someone would now spit and say “them’s fightin’ words.”

There have been a lot of issues people could take with Gary Bettman’s tenure as the commissioner, but his regime has brought the game back from hell after the last strike. Taking these steps indicate that Bettman’s office is apparently naive enough to think they now hold the power in the game.

The players are the product.

If there is no product to sell, there is no power.

However, reality indicates that the players are not free from guilt in this situation. More specifically, players representatives and team management have been abusing loopholes to circumvent the salary cap for years, and the league is no long willing to sit by while contracts mock the spirit of the CBA.

We now move into a tedious two-day window during which the NHLPA will look to leadership that isn’t formally in place yet – Donald Fehr – to guide them into uncharted territory. The league is gambling that they hold the cards, but the players could easily balk at the league’s ultimatum and the coming season could suddenly be in doubt.

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