The Devils Work
Success, as much as power, tends to corrupt. It's a maxim that applies to sport as well as any walk of life. Just ask baseball. What drove Messrs. Clemens, Bonds and Rodriguez to do what they did as much as anything was a desperation to both be perceived as the best and continue to be perceived that way.
Once winning starts, nobody wants it to end.
Which brings us to the curious case of Ilya Kovalchuk. In this case, maybe because it all happened during the dog days of summer when much of the traditional hockey media has been vacationing, not enough has been said about the fact it was the New Jersey Devils who, depending on your perspective, stretched the law or blatantly broke it.
Certainly Gary Bettman and his coterie of lawyers believe the Devils trampled on the rule book. Ditto for independent arbitrator Richard Bloch. The ghost ship that is the NHL Players Association disagreed - well, kinda - and mounted a half-hearted defence of the contract between Kovalchuk and Jersey. The rest of us? Some, like me, don't much care. It's just business, hockey business, and whatever they sort out is fine by me. After all, it's their business, not some government agency or public body, and it's certainly not a morality play with right and wrong. Don't put me in either the league or union camp.
What's interesting, however, is that it was the Devils involved. This, for years, has been one of the NHL's law-abiding franchises, a team that believed in doing it the right way, including not spending crazily on players. Other than the Don Koharski donut imbroglio, the Devs, since Lou Lamoriello arrived in 1987, were more often than not on the right side of the law and, unless it came to filling their building, able to lecture the rest of the league on correct franchise behaviour and being a good team player. When it came to labor fights with the players, the Devils were always hawks.
Next spring, however, will mark eight years since the Devils last won the Stanley Cup, equalling the longest Cup drought for the club since Lamoriello arrived. This is a team that got used to winning, capturing three titles between 1995 and 2003. Since that last Cup, there hasn't been much post-season success at all for the Devils, certainly not in the new arena in Newark or under new ownership.
When Lamoriello acquired Kovalchuk during the season for a decent package of talent, it seemed to be a very anti-Jersey deal. At the very least Kovalchuk seemed most unlike the protypical Devil, and while he played well, the trade certainly didn't pay off in any playoff success.
Having sacrificed those players and prospects to get him, however, and with a growing desperation that winning had become so elusive, and with all-world goalie Martin Brodeur starting to edge towards the final days of his career, the Devils couldn't stop there. They had to try to sign Kovalchuk, and then they willingly structured a contract that made Bettman gag and most of us laugh.
it was taking exploitation of a CBA loophole to the extreme. A salary apex of $11.5 million. A valley of $550,000. A 17-year term, taking Kovalchuk to the ripe of age of 44. It's legality could be argued, but not its absurdity as a concept.
But the Devils were desperate to recapture success. More than that, they'd seen Philadelphia and Chicago commit to precisely these kinds of deals, and then find themselves in the 2010 Stanley Cup final. It was a way to squeeze more talent on the ice than the salary cap was supposed to permit. To the frustration of roughly two-thirds of the league's teams, these contracts, hand-in-hand with burying bad deals in the minors and buyouts, had slowly started to create a competitive advantage for the teams willing to commit to them. Chris Pronger wasn't on the Flyer blueline because the Flyers were smart. He was there because Ed Snider was willing to do a deal that most teams couldn't, or wouldn't.
To those who despise the salary cap system as socialism, that was virtuous. To those who believe the 2005 CBA was supposed to be idiot proof and a scheme to ensure an even playing field, it was abhorrent.
What was strange this summer was to find the Devils on the side of the big market boys, willing to stretch the rules to get Kovalchuk under contract. Lamoriello could, at best, describe the deal as "legal." In a final moment of irony, he and the Devils needed the NHLPA to defend the contract they'd devised in front of an arbitrator.
Now, there is no GM more admired in the sport than Lamoriello, and for good reason. Many other managers would describe themselves as Lamoriello disciples - Brian Burke would be one - and many would call him for free advice when stuck in a pickle. People want to stay part of the Devils organization because of Lamoriello and the way in which he conducts himself.
Accordingly, many were surprised - shocked - that it was Lamoriello and the Devils who did this deal with Kovalchuk. Some suggest Lamoriello was pushed into it by an over-aggressive owner. Burke, for one, has said repeatedly these Kovalchuk-like deals are wrong and has vowed never to sign one on behalf of his owners. So far, he hasn't. Now, it will be interesting to see if the Devils try to gently tweak the Kovalchuk deal to make it pass Bettman's smell test, or walk away from this front-loaded, pay 'em 'til they die philosophy of cap evasion.
Within this current context, meanwhile, maybe the team to admire these days is the San Jose Sharks.
No, the Sharks have never won the Cup, and of late they've been tagged as post-season underachievers.
But since the institution of the cap system they've never done one of these bizarre front-loaded deals as a way of cheating the system. They've never bought out a player. Never sent a one-way contract to the minors as a means of clearing cap space. Last year, according to GM Doug Wilson, they were 21st in money spent on player payroll.
They've had more than 100 points in four straight seasons and made it to last spring's conference final, losing four straight to the Hawks.
Maybe the Sharks would behave differently under ownership willing to spend more freely, and maybe if you're not cheatin', you're not tryin'. The Hawks have a Cup and the Sharks don't and maybe that's all that really matters. But the Sharks pay their bills, don't do contracts that put other teams in trouble, fill their building and win a lot more games than they lose.
If it's only about doing whatever it takes to win, maybe they aren't winners. But in a league in which partnership is a curiously defined thing, they seem like partners you'd want to have.