Today was the big day, the first ever press conference by the New Jersey Devils to announce a player being signed was held at Prudential Center. You can view the video of the press conference at the Devils official website; and Tom Gulitti has a transcript written up at Fire & Ice. Check that out if you missed it live or would like to see or read it again.
As expected, there were questions raised to Lou Lamoriello about the structure and length of the contract. CapGeek has a full breakdown of the $102 million, 17 year long deal. The answers were shockingly candid from an individual as well as an organization that is notorious for it's secrecy. In fact, there were four quotes from either Lou or team owner Jeff Vanderbeek reported between the two beat reporters Tom Gulitti and Rich Chere just floored me when I first read them. I'm admittedly still trying to figure out what to think about the first three, and the fourth one is actually a little funny given the length of Kovalchuk's decision process. Read on to see what I'm talking about, perhaps you have an opinion or argument of your own about any of these.
The first bomb dropped is that Lou actually said that he doesn't think those type of deals should happen in the NHL. Here's Lou's quote as reported by Tom Gulitti:
I asked Lamoriello what he would think if someone brought up Kovalchuk’s contract in the next round of CBA negotiations (in two years) and pointed to it as a flaw.
"I might agree," he said. "But there is nothing that we have done wrong. This is within the rules. This is in the CBA. There are precedents that have been set. But I would agree we shouldn’t have these. But I’m also saying that because it’s legal and this is something that ownership felt comfortable doing for the right reasons."
I honestly don't know how I should feel about this statement. There have been those raging about the deal; for example, Dirk Hoag called it a "sham" at On the Forecheck, and Quisp continues to pile on with this post about escrow at Jewels From the Crown. (Aside: Do you care that six-to-seven figure salaried players are giving up a small fraction of cash to a CBA their union agreed upon?) I can only wonder how they feel that the man who offered the contract - per Kovalchuk's press conference, Ilya said Lou offered 17 years - actually agrees with their and others' complaints about long, front-loaded contracts. Do I laugh at the coincidence? Do I shrug my shoulders and repeat the mantra of "Don't hate the player, hate the game?" Do I furrow my brow and remain puzzled? Do I roll my own eyes and think Lou's trying to have his cake and eat it too?
Well for now, I just get plain shocked from the next revealing detail: this deal was not all Lou's doing. Here's the quote from Rich Chere at NJ.com (Shocking Quote #2 if you're following along):
"But I'm also saying that, because it's legal and this is something ownership felt like doing for the right reasons, then it was done."
But we have to ask: Was this Lamoriello's signing, or was it owner Jeff Vanderbeek giving him a push?
"You'd have to speak to ownership about that," Lamoriello answered. "This is a commitment ownership wanted to make to this type of player. All I can do is say whether the player is a player that can fit into the team, help the team and was not a risk as a player. As far as what the financial commitment is, that was out of my hands."
Lou doesn't definitively say whether Jeff Vanderbeek (the head of the group that owns the Devils) drove the deal. Given that there's a press conference and admits that the finances were out of his hands, I'm going to read between these lines and figure he definitely had a huge say in making this deal.
I'm actually a little troubled by this precedent. For the most part of his long reign as the Devils' GM, past ownership (Dr. John McMullen, PuckHoldings) has been hands-off as far as I could tell. Lou has made the transaction decisions himself with seemingly little ownership input and very few details revealed as possible. Now, there is a signing where ownership was quite active and Lou's being incredibly candid about that fact all of the sudden. Is this a one-time event given the caliber of player involved? Or will the current ownership become more involved in future player decisions on the team?
Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised that some involvement by ownership makes sense for any kind of deal. After all, it's their money that's being spent. The people providing the cash at least have to sign off on what the GM has been doing; especially when the amount of any contract would total over $100 million. Yet, here we have a deal where it seems that ownership wanted Kovalchuk from the start, confirmed with Lou that he would be beneficial for the team, and then worked on a deal. That's exactly what I got out of Jeff Vanderbeek's quote to Rich Chere in this enlightening yet shocking:
"No, this is not my signing," Vanderbeek said. "It was a combination of the whole organization. Certainly Lou did a lot of the heavy lifting. My partner, Mike Gilfillan, was very supportive and helpful. This is never just about one person.
"We did what we could to put our best foot forward. You make a decision and you don't look back."
There are people who won't believe Lamoriello pushed for this because of the salary and length of the contract.
"I would just say those people don't really know him well," Vanderbeek said. "Lou is all about giving the organization the best chance to succeed. To win. He also knows, like I do, this is the best chance to put a lot of people in the seats to grow revenue.
"Some people get that confused. He doesn't and I don't."
Admittedly, I'm mostly shocked that Jeff answered this directly and candidly as he did. I'm a little relieved that this was a group effort; but at the same time, he did admit that business played a role in wanting to re-sign him. I know that's the reality of professional sports since, well, they became professional. For an organization that hasn't marketed themselves much less a player well, it's still a bit jarring to read that one of the reasons to re-sign him was to boost revenue - no matter how reasonable and beneficial that may be.
If the Devils want to promote Kovalchuk and this leads to other top players being promoted (Read: Zach Parise), then great. I'm 100% on-board with that kind of change in team philosophy. However, going back to my original concern, do note the name of this blog is In Lou We Trust. When Lou's calling the shots on the hockey side of the team, I'm not concerned for the most part. I firmly believe the fanbase trusts Lou to do the right thing. If future deals start becoming Lou plus management, then I'd be really concerned for the future of this team.
I have no problem with management having a say financially, again it's their money; but I don't want them overruling Lou. Maybe I'm being overly concerned. I hope I am because I really, really don't want to see Lou being influenced to make decisions he wouldn't otherwise make. That's bad for the Devils no matter how you slice it.
Lastly, this fourth quote is, well, just funny given the Ilya Kovalchuk Decision Saga. As Rich Chere posted, Vanderbeek revealed that the Devils made their contract offer early and then just waited:
And Vanderbeek said the Devils' final offer was almost totally on the table from the first day. It didn't really change.
"Not very much," Vanderbeek said. "There may have been a tweak here or there. Not much."
In other words, the two weeks of Kovalchuk going to LA or elsewhere, and still wrestling with the decision was really to field other offers. Lou (and Jeff) stayed the course and they ultimately won out since no one else. Even in this day and age of the Internet, mobile phone access, and constant information, patience truly remains as a virtue. Even Kovalchuk's agent Jay Grossman praised Lou specifically for it per Chere.
I almost feel bad for the other teams that could have offered him something similar. Almost - because other team's ownership and/or management would not go as far with either the total amount of money or contract length that would have beaten New Jersey's offer.
Anyway, today was a big day but not just because of the press conference, but from what I learned from Lou and Jeff through the press itself.