With none of the parties involved in the dispute talking on the record, confusion reigns after the NHL rejected the New Jersey Devils' 17-year, $102 million contract with free-agent star Ilya Kovalchuk(notes).
The next big news in the dispute will come when the NHLPA decides whether to fight the voided deal in arbitration. But there's been a lingering question about Kovalchuk's status among interested observers:
Is he still an unrestricted free agent?
Coming up, some fresh analysis on the pending NHL/NHLPA war over the contact.
It's a salient point, because the Los Angeles Kings have already stated their interest in Kovalchuk should he go "back to market," even after having spurned them for the Devils; and lord knows the rumor mill has been churning out other B.S. about teams swooping in to sign Kovalchuk.
Devils beat writer Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record, after receiving the usual 'no comments' from general manager Lou Lamoriello, sought to define Kovalchuk's current status. From Fire & Ice:
As for Kovalchuk's status-whether he is an unrestricted free agent or Devils' property-Lamoriello wouldn't answer that question either. According to someone who would know but was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, Kovalchuk is still contractually linked to the Devils, though that contract is not considered legal by the NHL. So, he is not a UFA and is not free to speak with other teams about a contract. He could change that by requesting that the NHLPA not pursue the matter with a grievance, but that does not appear to be his intention.
So there you go: Devils property, pending NHLPA intervention.
Three other Kovalchuk notes Friday morning: First, here, how the contract rejection has affected the Devils' and Kings' Stanley Cup wagering odds.
The National Post spoke with a few agents about the potential arbitration case, and discovered (shocker!) that they believe the NHL will have a hard time winning:
But several player agents said if the matter goes before an arbitrator, the league would soon find out that it "doesn't have much of a leg to stand on."
"I can tell you that during bargaining, that the league was not successful in negotiating rules to limit the length of contract a player can sign with a club," said player agent Ian Pulver, who was one of the authors of the CBA. "So the NHL is going to have to show evidence that the club and the player were trying to defeat rules in the collective agreement, because they can't certainly prove that a player will not play when he's 44 years old.
"You have to have the evidence to support that. Saying 'we think' is not strong enough."
Also, this Jim Kelley column from SI is an interesting read, chronicling the politics and personal disputes in the Devils/NHL dispute; including this:
GMs in mid-sized and small-sized markets were upset because they couldn't afford to do the same and felt that larger market teams were gaining an unfair advantage. Fans had a gripe because their favorite teams were losing good-to-great players after management had spent years preaching patience and the virtues of developing from within only to see the best of that effort moving on for the kind of monster dollars the cap rule was supposed to limit.
It's an unflattering situation for [Gary] Bettman, who appears to be legally outflanked and now needs to make his presence felt. In a way, Kovalchuk is the perfect player on which to draw the line. Unlike Alexander Ovechkin or Chris Pronger(notes), Kovalchuk has no monster track record regarding fan appreciation. He's good, arguably great, but he spent eight years in Atlanta, where he couldn't get recognized outside of Buckhead. He's also signing with New Jersey, a franchise that, despite three Stanley Cups, doesn't generate the same call-to-arms that the neighboring New York Rangers do, especially within media ranks.
Great points all around. Many people have called the 17 years and blatant "front-loading" as being over-the-line, and the NHL knew it could be seen as being on the right side of history by the majority. Like we said earlier in the week: They know the contracts coming down the pike before the next CBA war; this was a preemptive strike.