Ilya Kovalchuk Re-signs with New Jersey Devils: Initial Thoughts on the New Team Issues

The big news today is certainly, well, massive. The New Jersey Devils have re-signed Ilya Kovalchuk.  The signing is so big, the Devils will actually have a press conference tomorrow it.  I can't recall the last time the Devils had a press conference for a player being signed to the team.

I'm going to forthright, I'm not fully excited about the deal.   As far back as May, I made the case that while Kovalchuk's talent is unquestionable and there's some evidence he isn't so awful on defense, to re-sign him will present serious problems on the roster both in terms of position and cap space.  That is, it would be more trouble than he's worth.  As time went on, I re-iterated that point after the recent Mikko Koivu extension. Re-signing Kovalchuk could make it so financially difficult for the Devils given what Zach Parise and Travis Zajac could demand down the line that it would be better to forget about the Russian sniper.   Not to mention that goal scorers don't tend to remain goal scorers much later in their career, per this sobering post by Quisp at Jewels from the Crown.  So I'm not 100% behind this deal.  I don't hate it, but what happens next will affect how I feel about this contract.

That said, the contract details are still up in the air, so I can't confidently commit to whether I think this was a good deal with flaws or a bad deal that I hope Lou can salvage.   CapGeek's currently showing $102 million over 17 years, though that's not confirmed yet (and perhaps not even by the NHL yet, but I wouldn't worry).  UPDATE:  Tom Gulitti confirms that it is indeed the official deal registered with the NHLPA.  Still not approved yet by the NHL.

That's not a bad cap hit at all.  Still, I have more than a few thoughts about what Lou, John MacLean and the coaches, the other players, and Kovalchuk himself will have to do going forward this summer now that the signing is official.   This will likely be the last major signing by the Devils this summer, but it's far from the last major move the Devils will have to make.

 

 

A Related Aside: Take any, if not all, Internet reports with a grain of salt

Go back to the first week of June to when the Devils didn't have a head coach hired.  Various posts from various people got Devils fans up in arms about how Michel Therrien was going to be named the next Devils head coach.  The original source of the news seemed to be William DePaoli of Inside Pittsburgh Sports on Twitter.  I went through his tweets in conjunction with the other articles online to create a timeline and concluded that it wasn't a done deal as people had assumed.  

No disrespect to DePaoli, I'm sure his sources had information and it is his job to pass that along.  Yet, it turned out that Therrien wasn't named the head coach of the Devils.  On June 17, John MacLean was hired and formally introduced to the team.   The reports that got fans excited earlier turned out to be false.

With Kovalchuk, the madness and amount of reports later becoming false or not quite correct skyrocketed.  Just look at the comments of so many of the free agency open threads where tweets or reports about what Kovalchuk was doing (e.g. July 3-4, July 6)  My personal favorite came on July 5 where Mark Everson's report was spread all over the place only to turn out to be meaningless.  More recently, Gulitti had this round up that showed all signs pointing Kovalchuk to LA on July 16.  Clearly, those turned out to be all for naught.

I fully understand the interest: Kovalchuk was the biggest name on the market and there wasn't much action going on.  I understand that being first is a big deal in the world of journalism.  I understand everyone has their sources and for all I know,  they are legitimate people with legitimate news.   Still, what I take out of this whole ordeal is that internet news should be taken with a grain of salt, but stay cautious until something official actually confirms it.  This not only applies to the contract details for Kovalchuk but future news, in my opinion.  Call it skepticism but a lot of frustration over this story would have been avoided with some more patience and disbelief by all parties involved.

GM and Roster Issues

OK, back to the Devils themselves. Contract details aren't official as of now, but per Gulitti, it appears to be a $102 million, 17 year deal. Even if it's not the exact amount or length, I'd be shocked if the deal wasn't A) long and B) front-loaded to reduce the overall cap hit.  That's quite shrewd, if not necessary, by Lou.  The Devils are basically in a "sell" mode unless it's revealed that Ilya Kovalchuk took a lot less money than people are saying.   Since that's about as likely as a unicorn showing up at butcher's tomorrow, the Devils will need to clear some kind of cap space.  The lower the cap hit, the less Lou has to clear.  With a $6 million/year cap hit, that would be at least $1.8 million.

Some people aren't happy about the supposed front-loaded contract, but all I have to say is: don't hate the player, hate the game.   The CBA assigns cap hits by average value and doesn't have term limits on contracts.  The Devils aren't going around the salary cap ceiling or floor, so I don't see how this would be a circumvention.  Other teams have done this (e.g. Chicago with Marian Hossa), and if anyone is clever enough to exploit the CBA, it's Lou Lamoriello.  Clearly, Jeff Vanderbeek is willing to drop the coin, Lou's confident in the committment, and Kovalchuk and his people support the deal by signing it.  It's win-win-win for all involved, so what others think is essentially pointless.  Get a GM who's willing to be creative with the CBA instead of following a meaningless "spirit of the rule."

Going forward won't be a win-win situation for New Jersey, though.  Given that everyone in the hockey world knows that Lou has signed Kovalchuk, he no longer has much leverage to dump any contracts.  Some draft picks or prospects may have to be dumped along with heavy contracts just to make the deals happen at all.   When you consider that the Devils still need another center and will need at least one defenseman to start the season to fill in for an injured Anssi Salmela, moving prospects now would hurt the Devils both now and in the long term. Lou has to clear more than just Kovalchuk's contract, but the deals of others who are going to take those spots.  Trading just Bryce Salvador away isn't the answer. I'd expect some unlikeable deals to clear cap space in the weeks to come; I can only hope they are not truly awful.

Basically, Lou's big challenge will be fitting the team under the cap while having quality players across the board.

I'm sure some Devils fans will immediately point to this report by Gulitti and this one by Rich Chere about how Brian Rolston knows his deal is hurting the Devils cap-wise, so why not trade him?  I seriously doubt that will happen.  First, who is going to take a $5 million/year cap hit for the next 2 years for a guy who isn't a top 2-line winger anymore?  Second, Rolston still has a No Trade Clause.  As far as we know, it's not a limited NTC where he has a list of teams he'll allow a trade for.  Rolston will get his money no matter if he does well in New Jersey, does poorly in New Jersey, if he's sent down to Albany, if he's hurt, or even if he retires.  Given that this team still has plenty of talent, I don't see the incentive for Rolston to want to go anywhere else.

Basically, the Devils are still stuck with Rolston as well as Colin White, Jason Arnott, Johan Hedberg, Jamie Langenbrunner, Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias - all of whom have no trade clauses except for Elias who has a no movement clause.  Not that you'd want to move most of those players anyway: Arnott and Hedberg are expiring after this year, Elias and Brodeur are too good to dump.   Expect them to stay unless they really want out (and I doubt that), is my main point.

Again, it is nothing short of a gargantuan challenge for any GM to manage dumping salary without hurting the team too much and while keeping options over for re-signing other Devils (Parise - and he needs to stay a Devil - he is a beast).  I trust in Lou.  If anyone can do all of this, it's him.  And if he does somehow pull this all off, then it'll further his position as the best GM in sports.

Coaching & Other Player Issues

Anyway, moving forward in questions: what does John MacLean and the coaching staff plan to do?  Sure, he's pleased about the signing per Chere; but he's ultimately the one who has to decide the lines and tactics for each game.  So many questions come to mind:  Does Parise stay up on the first line or does Kovalchuk take that spot?  What do you do with Elias?  Do you consider moving one of these three top-end left wings to the off-wing?   Does MacLean allow Kovalchuk to take longer shifts on the power play as well as in general? Do you have assistants work on Kovalchuk's defense?  

MacLean and the coaching staff may feel pleased to have the "problem" of an elite sniper on their roster, but if they can't answer these questions properly, Kovalchuk won't be utilized to his full potential which will hurt the team overall.

One good positive about the signing that I feel some may have overlooked is that Kovalchuk is returning to a team  that mostly played with him last season.  They know what he's about and what his tendencies are, so it's not like there will be a "settling in" period for either side. 

Still, Rolston's quotes today to Gulitti and this post by Chere about Dainius Zubrus' reaction (he likes the deal, but focus on the trade issue) raise a larger point in my mind.  The Devils players know someone's getting traded to make room for Kovalchuk and others.  The thought of being traded away is definitely unsettling and it would completely affect a player's performance.  Fortunately, Lou will have to make those tough decisions before the season.  Plus, should the contract deals truly be $102 million/17 years; the $6 million cap hit wouldn't put Kovalchuk that much ahead of most of his teammates' cap hits.

Yet, if players traded were well-liked by his teammates to the point where they felt he was a key part of the team, expect friction to arise when the team doesn't do so well.  Both the players and coaches will have to work hard to avoid this signing to turn out to be some kind of sticking point of discontent.

At least, Zach Parise is happy about the signing per Gulitti. (Related aside:  In that same post, note that Langenbrunner will also be at the press conference; further reason to believe he's "safe" beyond just having a NTC.)

Back to Kovalchuk

Of course, a lot of pressure now falls on the man of the hour himself.  Ilya Kovalchuk has made an NHL career of being a goal scoring machine.  He's got 338 goals and 304 assists in 638 games off of 2,289 shots on goal.  His career shooting percentage is an amazing 14.8%.   Kovalchuk will be expected to maintain that high level of production for at least the next 5 years or so.   We're talking at least 40-goal, 80-point seasons.   Many will forgive any shortcomings on defense if the offense is present and it helps win games, but his errors will stick out ever more given he'll be around for a long, long time.

I'm expecting even more from Kovalchuk, though.  He says he wants to succeed. Great.  Work on your defense. Work on your breakouts.  Get together with your teammates and listen to what they want you to do.  I want Kovalchuk to be the model player, looking to improve his game as well as cooperating with his fellow players.   If asked to move to right wing, then do so without question.  I'm not asking him to emulate Parise; but he's going to be a Devil for a long time to come, and so I want him take it to the next level.  Steve Lepore's taking it further - perhaps justifiably so - that the Devils need to win right away with Kovalchuk. All the more reason to expect more from the sniper.

I've cast my doubts on whether the Devils should re-sign Kovalchuk because of the roster and cap issues any re-signing would create.  I've never doubted his talent nor have I claimed that he was a "bad fit" in New Jersey in this past season.  Kovalchuk can definitely be a great Devil.  With this deal, I want him to do just that. In fact, the team's official website is advertising Kovalchuk already - so the Devils certainly expect greatness right from the get-go.  The time for talk is just about over.  Get your family up and settled in New Jersey, and get to work to being the next great hockey player in Devils red, Ilya.

Your Reaction

As usual, I had more than just a few thoughts.  Though, that should be expected because A) I tend to be long like that and B) this is such a big deal that it can't be crammed into just a few paragraphs.  The too long, didn't read version is basically:  It may turn out good, but I'm not fully sold on it yet.  There are too many issues and questions that will have to be addressed that could alter how we see this move.  Lou was very bold to re-sign Kovalchuk, that's for sure.  I'll continue to trust him and hope his boldness will be rewarded.

Now I want to know what you think.  What among all of these issues concern you the most about the Kovalchuk signing?  How do you truly feel about the signing? Would you feel better if the contract turned out to be worth $102 million/17 year deal - resulting in a $6 million cap hit?  What are your expectations for Kovalchuk for the coming seasons?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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