It became the hot-button topic for the entire summer, but for all of the mountains of copy written about the Ilya Kovalchuk contract fiasco, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke’s involvement in the battle was only a footnote.
But certainly a compelling one.
As the GM of hockey’s wealthiest team, Burke has often said he’ll use his ownership’s deep pockets to his advantage – whether that involves burying players in the minors, beefing up his scouting staff or offering generous bonuses to entry-level players.
But when it came to the richest front-loaded contract of 2010, Burke was at the front of the line in the fight against its very existence.
As a result, when he sits down at the league’s board of governors meeting on Tuesday in New York to discuss the issue in its aftermath, Burke will have far more allies among the small-market teams than the big-market clubs whose contracts he’s been denouncing for years.
“I don’t mind being on an island,” Burke said of his stance. “I’ve done it consistently throughout my career where I believe there’s a principle involved.”
Burke became directly involved in the rejection of Kovalchuk’s 17-year, $102-million (all currency U.S.) contract with the New Jersey Devils in early August, after the league asked him to testify against long-term, cap-circumventing deals during the arbitration proceedings on Aug. 5.
In what must have made for grand theatre in front of a host of league and NHLPA lawyers, Burke expounded on his hatred for “bogus” contracts that cheated the salary-cap system, fingering at one point Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger’s seven-year, $34.45-million deal as an egregious example of one he would never have signed.
Burke added that only six to eight teams were signing these long-term contracts, and they were all well-funded, big-market franchises that spent to the cap and were looking for ways to fit more talent in for less.
Teams, in other words, not all that different from his own.
Burke was the only GM to testify in the arbitration hearing and, in fact, the only non-league staffer to testify. One of his central points was that Kovalchuk was a player worth $8-million to $10-million a season and not the $6-million cap hit on the disputed deal.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday that Burke’s testimony proved “helpful” to their case and that he admired his willingness to fight contracts such as Kovalchuk’s despite running a franchise that would potentially benefit from them.
“I totally respect his position and view on these types of contracts,” Daly said. “He saw them for what they were – attempts to cheat the system – and he refused to go there.”
Making Burke’s involvement all the more intriguing was the fact his position put him directly at odds with Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, his mentor and former coach dating to his playing days at Providence College in the mid-1970s.
Asked if his position on these contracts had strained his relationship with Lamoriello and other GMs who had signed similar deals, Burke said, simply: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
“We had an issue, the league dealt with it, I think, appropriately,” Burke added. “They reached a settlement [with the NHLPA]and we move forward. Whenever the league negotiates on behalf of the teams, that’s what we’re bound by and we’re satisfied with that.”
Privately, however, some GMs said they aren’t satisfied that the league’s new guidelines for long-term deals go far enough. Many of the contracts at issue would have their cap hits only slightly altered if signed under the new agreement, leaving a strong incentive for teams that can afford the front-loaded deals to continue to sign them.
Even Kovalchuk’s revised 15-year, $100-million deal, which was grandfathered as part of last week’s settlement, could be signed by another player at any point – albeit with a cap hit that would be roughly $490,000 higher each season.
Other long-term deals with low-salaried final seasons, such as Detroit Red Wings forward Johan Franzen’s, would be unaffected by new guidelines that raise the cap hit on deals that extend beyond a player’s 41st birthday.
Daly said the league is comfortable with the fact contracts similar to the majority of long-term deals currently in existence can still be signed under the new rules.
“This was about addressing contracts that we felt circumvented the collective bargaining agreement through the addition of years that no one reasonably expects the player to perform,” he said. “Those were the contracts that circumvented the CBA.”
Burke said this week he still remains committed to his personal philosophy of avoiding really long-term deals, despite their potential cap benefits. He added that he has yet to sign a contract beyond five years because of the risks involved.
The likelihood of Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn getting a deal structured like Kovalchuk’s, in other words, is slim.
“My view [on signing contracts]would still be the same,” Burke said. “We’re two years away from expiration of the CBA. My mindset hasn’t changed. The league sets the rules here, they’ve given us the rules and now we’ll go forward under those rules. I’m not going to rule out anything that’s permissible under the league bylaws or under the CBA.
“Until the league reached this settlement, in my mind, these deals constituted cap circumvention and I have steadfastly refused to do them.”
Burke’s critics, however, look at the landscape of the league, where competing teams such as the Devils and Flyers are benefiting from creatively constructed deals, and question why some of the Leafs’ financial muscle isn’t aimed in that direction.
“Lamoriello came out at the press conference [for Kovalchuk’s initial contract]and said, ‘well I’m against these deals,’ ” one source noted. “But he did what was best for his organization. For his team. He always does.”
One final question still lingering from the Kovalchuk proceedings is whether the Devils will be punished for signing a deal that an arbitrator ruled circumvented the cap. Daly confirmed on Thursday that the issue was still being contemplated, indicating the league could wait until the Sept. 17 deadline to serve punishment.
If a fine or draft-pick penalty does come down, it could further strengthen the league’s position against the long-term deals it believes circumvent the cap.
It would also be, at least in part, thanks to the one rival GM who went to war against them.