And Still Going Up
When the NHL's board of governors meets Tuesday morning in Manhattan, you can bet Lou Lamoriello will try and make a case that the punishment far exceeded the crime.
Lamoriello is a principled fellow. His hero is Vince Lombardi. He thought he was just playing by the rules when he signed Ilya Kovalchuk to one of those absurd "back-diving" contracts during the summer, contracts than other teams like Boston, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Detroit had signed. Heck, Chicago had done similar deals with Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa, and the Hawks had won the Stanley Cup.
But first an independent arbitrator slapped down the Devils' initial deal with Kovalchuk, and on Monday the NHL chimed in with heavy penalties including a $3 million fine, a forfeited third round draft choice, and the loss of a first round pick sometime in the next four years.
Lamoriello will try to make his case that this punishment is unfair. And it will fall on deaf ears.
See, Gary Bettman has been practically begging teams not to sign these double-digit term contracts for years - Rick DiPietro, Alex Ovechkin - and redoubled his efforts when teams began twisting the CBA even more with torqued contracts that dwindled down to tiny salaries in the final few years just to get a more appealing cap number.
So Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly, will have no sympathy for Lamoriello. And neither will at least 20 other teams, maybe more, who either couldn't afford to agree to these Kovalchuk-type contracts or saw them as cheating and didn't want to.
Simply put, Lamoriello can complain, but nobody will be listening.
It's too bad, because given Lamoriello's history and background, he undoubtedly wasn't intentionally trying to cheat. He just ended being the wrong GM in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now the price of acquiring a player who really didn't help the Devils in the playoffs last spring has become astronomical.
First, the Devils sent forward Niclas Bergfors, defenceman Johnny Oduya and Canadian national junior team captain Patrice Cormier to Atlanta to get Kovalchuk, along with a first and second round pick. New Jersey also got a prospect and a second rounder back.
Then, after arbitrator Richard Bloch rejected the first contract, the Devils finally came up with $100 million deal that, after much discussion, was approved. Now they've been fined and had draft choices revoked on top of it, plus they still have to dump contracts to get under the salary cap.
it's hard to put a value on all of that. How much is a first round draft pick worth in dollars? But you could argue Kovalchuk will, when its all said and done, cost the Devils somewhere between $150 million and $200 million in salary, fines, prospects, draft picks and players. And it's quite likely that he won't put another body in a seat in the notoriously fickle New Jersey hockey market.
Unless Kovalchuk turns into Mario Lemieux, he can't possibly be worth all this. It's like the Devils got on a speeding bus and just couldn't get off.
Perhaps they hoped Bettman would let them off the hook after Bloch ruled Jersey hadn't intentionally circumvented the salary cap. But the commissioner really couldn't. For starters, teams were clamouring for him to take action. He'd fined the Leafs $500,000 and taken away a fourth round pick for messing with the contract of a middling defenceman named Jonas Frogren. He'd hammered the St. Louis Blues back in 1999 for tampering five years earlier with Devils defenceman Scott Stevens, fining the Blues $1.5 million and taking away two first round picks, effectively.
There was just no chance the Devils were going to get away without punishment. In fact, it could have been worse. Under the collective bargaining agreement, they stood to lose the same amount in cap space that they were fined, a nightmarish prospect given that they are already over the cap. But as part of the larger, complicated deal that allowed Kovalchuk's contract to be approved and new CBA rules to be installed making it more difficult to sign these kinds of contracts, the league and union agreed that the Devils wouldn't be fined more than $3 million and there wouldn't be any salary cap implications.
So, yes, it could have been worse for the Devils.
The likely outcome at today's board of governors meetings will be a brief discussion, and then on to other business. If the Devils try and pursue this much further, they risk becoming the kind of renegades they were perceived to be back in the 1988 playoffs when Jim Schoenfeld told Don Koharski to have another doughnut.
They can scream about the Bruins, Canucks, Flyers, Red Wings and Hawks getting away with the very same crime for which they are being punishment, and they won't be wrong.
But it won't get them anywhere, leaving them married for the next 15 years to a player who, unless he becomes a hockey version of Peyton Manning or Kobe Bryant overnight, can't possibly deliver value for the cost of acquisition.