(Ed. Note: The following is written by a New Jersey Devils fan.)
The image above greets visitors to the New Jersey Devils' website, and it's surreal for anyone that's followed the team through the Rule of Emperor Lou Lamoriello.
It's an earnest attempt at marketing an offensive star, perhaps for the first time in franchise history. It puts the individual above the team, perhaps for the first player in Devils' history not named Brodeur and not having his number retired.
But there's something off about the headline: "Kovy Is Back." It indicates a level of affection that doesn't exist for what was a mercenary last season; a season that saw him post solid but unspectacular numbers and fail to shove the Devils into the second round of the playoffs.
"Kovy is Back." One might say Devils fans are still waiting for him to arrive.
Coming up, five observations and revelations in the wake of Ilya Kovalchuk's(notes) $102 million, 17-year contract with the Devils; from the CBA implications to what it means for the franchise's future.
1. Ilya Kovalchuk Didn't Fit on Last Year's Devils; But These Aren't Last Year's Devils
Kovalchuk going from free-wheelin' in Atlanta to a Jacques Lemaire team was like Lady Gaga suddenly finding herself in a Mormon girl's choir. He looked ill-fitting because he was an ill fit; and in the playoffs, Kovalchuk was a selfish, ineffective dud.
Lemaire is gone. John MacLean's the new head coach, and Adam Oates is his new assistant coach. Even if the Devils' philosophy remains grounded in defense-first, there's no question conditions are better for Kovalchuk to thrive with a regime change and with his surroundings a bit more familiar.
That said: We still have no idea where he fits in this lineup. Maybe Tuesday's press conference offers some clarity.
2. The 17-Year Contract Is Playing By The Rules
Do these lifetime contracts circumvent the salary cap? Of course, but they do so by exploiting a loophole in the current CBA that will be closed up about 10 seconds into the next negotiation between the league and the Players Association.
Is a 17-year contract a "joke" or a "farce," two words that have been tossed around like a Nerf football for the last 24 hours? Nah. I've argued before that lifetime contracts are actually good for the NHL, from a fan's perspective. From an old Wyshynski vs. Mirtle debate after Henrik Zetterberg(notes) signed his massive deal with the Detroit Red Wings:
If you're going to have a cap, you have to allow for some creative accounting so teams are able to hold onto the players they draft, nurture and then promote as stars. A front-loaded contract with a reduced cap hit allows a team like, say, Detroit to keep a star player while also hanging onto other talent.
The Devils didn't draft Kovalchuk, but they did sacrifice assets to acquire him at the trade deadline last season. I see no problem in getting creative to retain that asset as long as the CBA "allows" the loophole to be exploited; but Dirk Hoag had a great suggestion on how to close it:
"Within a new SPC (Standard Player Contract), no yearly salary can be less than 50% of the highest salary within the span of that contract."
Yes, there are very real drawbacks to these "lifetime" contracts, especially for blue-collar guys in the NHLPA. But let's not get nutty about this Kovalchuk deal or any others like it. For example, Bucky Gleason: How on earth is this contract "the latest example of big-market teams owning a distinct advantage over their little brothers" when the Atlanta Thrashers, the littlest of brothers, offered Kovalchuk exactly $1 million less than the Devils?
3. In Lou They Trust
Strip away all the debate points about Kovalchuk, the Devils and 17 years for a moment, and think of it this way: Lou Lamoriello signed a 27-year-old winger who averages 1.03 points per game and has scored over 40 goals in six consecutive seasons for a $6 million cap hit.
Do you know how many players have a higher cap hit than Ilya Kovalchuk right now in the NHL? Thirty-nine.
The Devils have been a consistent success under Lamoriello for four reasons: The Defense, orchestrated by coaches like Lemaire and Burns and players like the Scotts and Brodeur; The Pipeline, which has produced both homegrown talent and diamonds in the rough; The Bold Moves, from trading for Claude Lemieux(notes) to trading for Alex Mogilny; and Manipulating the System, which is something Lamoriello has mastered.
Like way back in 1987, when new general manager Lamoriello selected Risto Siltanen in the waiver draft, knowing he wasn't going to play in the NHL that season, just to have a player to place back on waivers after claiming Jack O'Callahan in the same draft. Other GMs weren't happy.
Like when he used the arbitration process to snag Scott Stevens from the St. Louis Blues. Or ladled out "Lou's Kool-Aid" to keep salaries for players like Brodeur down for the betterment of the team. Or the minor miracles he made happen after the lockout when the Devils were capped out. Other GMs weren't happy.
So he's done it again here with Kovalchuk: Working the system, getting creative, outraging others. Some have seen this star-fracking as the antithesis of Lamoriello management — in fact, it's vintage Lou.
(And don't underestimate Lamoriello's signing of Anton Volchenkov(notes) and Johan Hedberg(notes): Two former Kovalchuk teammates and two clients of agent Jay Grossman. He was making the bed for Kovy here while also improving the team.)
Parise, the Devils' homegrown star left wing, doesn't currently have an agent. Whomever he picks is going to have quite a commission next summer. From Fire & Ice:
With Kovalchuk's deal out of the way, Lamoriello can also move on to signing Parise to a long-term extension. He is slated to become a restricted free agent next summer and is two years away from being eligible for unrestricted free agency.
"We'll see," Parise said of working on extension with the Devils. "I'm just more excited that we got Kovy for a long time. (Lamoriello) hasn't talked to me yet, so I'm not too concerned about it. I'm pretty excited about Kovy coming back."
Well that's disturbingly coy.
The Devils are not signing Kovalchuk at the expense of Parise: First, because both are viewed as foundational players for the next decade and, second, because Jersey fans would riot if that were the case. And if there's anything Newark doesn't need ...
No, the Devils will work to re-sign Parise; it's just a matter of if he wants to remain in New Jersey. If Parise decides to pull a Bobby Ryan and go short-term ... well, it's his call.
The Devils face some cap conundrums now, as John Fischer deftly breaks down at In Lou We Trust. But in thinking about Parise, they do have some contracts expiring down the line.
Bottom line: Mikko Koivu(notes) and the Wild didn't do the Devils any favors with their contract.
5. Finally, There Is More Pressure on Kovalchuk Than on the Devils
Again, criticism of the contract, the years, the commitment and the money is what it is for the Devils. But it's not as if they've gambling on an unknown quantity.
Kovalchuk, on the other hand, has something to prove. That the numbers can remain strong, or improve, as he enters his prime carrying the richest contract in franchise history. That the criticisms of defensive liability and selfish play are unfounded or antiquated. That, in the postseason, he can be a difference-maker instead of a deer in the headlights. And, off the ice, that his talents mean more fannies in the seats at the Prudential Center than they did in Atlanta, where his credentials as a box-office draw were never established.
Kovalchuk is now KOVALCHUK, THE MAN WITH THE 17-YEAR CONTRACT. And to even hope to live up to that hype, he's going to have to do something he's never done before.
No, not make a decision in less than three weeks.
He's going to have to win.