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Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates after assisting on the first goal of the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on February 5, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates after assisting on the first goal of the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on February 5, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Eric Duhatschek

Devils gamble on the short term Add to ...

Value is an increasingly difficult thing to assess in today's NHL, given the latest contract bombshell: The New Jersey Devils signing Ilya Kovalchuk on Monday to a deal reportedly worth $102-million (all figures U.S.) over 17 years - provided he plays until the end of the 2026-27 NHL season as a latter-day Chris Chelios.

Of course, no one believes that scenario will unfold, least of all Kovalchuk himself, who will earn the vast majority of those dollars in the next 10 years after which the contract presumably tapers out in a bunch of years at insignificant money. Assuming the NHL actually signs off on the deal, the Devils' philosophy here is clear: Collective bargaining agreements will come and go over those next 17 years.

It will be someone else's problem to navigate the long-term implications of the deal if the NHL ever comes up with a way of punishing teams for so cavalierly ignoring the spirit of the salary cap (even though it looks as if the Devils did nothing illegal under the agreement as it is currently structured).

The Devils' winning bid trumped a 15-year, $80-million offer that the Los Angeles Kings put on the table, one that - for a time anyway - looked as if would bring the Russian sniper to the West Coast.

Philosophically, New Jersey's intention in laying out all that cash for Kovalchuk is to push forward and take a run at another Stanley Cup while goaltender Martin Brodeur is still a viable NHLer at the age of 38.

Few remember that Brodeur actually led the NHL in victories with 45 in 77 appearances this past season, before the Devils limped out in the first round of the playoffs to the upstart Philadelphia Flyers, one of three monumental Eastern Conference upsets.

The Devils have remade their roster significantly since then, adding a former star in centre Jason Arnott up front as well as signing defencemen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder to help out on a blueline that saw veteran Paul Martin leave for the Pittsburgh Penguins and which lacks a strong offensive component.

Another small but significant move was largely overlooked: They also signed the popular Johan Hedberg away from the Atlanta Thrashers to act as Brodeur's backup. It means Brodeur's days of playing 75-plus games in the regular season are now officially over.

Hedberg is a thoroughly competent NHL goaltender, one who played 47 games for the Thrashers last year and won 21 times. With Hedberg available, the theory is that Brodeur will be more rested for the playoffs and perhaps that will make a difference to a New Jersey team with three Stanley Cups on its resume since 1995, but four first round and two second round defeats in the past six years.

Those came despite the fact the franchise averaged over 100 regular-season points in that span.

Kovalchuk, in theory, will provide the missing piece of the puzzle - and this is where the logic starts to get a little fuzzy.

It's not as if Kovalchuk is coming in as a brand new fresh face, a la Marian Gaborik with the New York Rangers last year, or Marian Hossa with the Chicago Blackhawks. Kovalchuk was in New Jersey for the final 27 games of the regular season plus the five games it took to lose to Philadelphia in the opening round.

For someone known as a sniper - he is the only NHL player to score 40 or more goals in each of the past six seasons - Kovalchuk only sniped 12 goals in those 32 games, far off his usual pace.

That might have been a function of Jacques Lemaire's defence-first system. It might have been because it took Kovalchuk more time than anticipated to adjust to his new surroundings after eight years in Atlanta. Whatever it was that kept his goal-scoring totals to a comparatively modest level, Kovalchuk had a decent-enough run with the Devils and certainly did enough for them to want him back in a meaningful way.

But he wasn't the answer last spring, and unless they think the coaching switch to John MacLean will make a difference in terms of upping the offensive ante, it is difficult to see the Devils as anything more or less than what they always are - a thoroughly competitive team in a conference where the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will start the year as the co-favourites and the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins are in a position to make some noise as well.

Does that warrant a 17-year, $102-million commitment to a single player? The Devils obviously thought so.

Presumably, future sportswriters entering kindergarten right now will be able to pass judgment on that some time in the future. At the moment, it looks like a lot of money for a player with nine career playoff games and one playoff win on his resume.

But value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder - and the Devils obviously saw something attractive in Kovalchuk that wasn't necessarily visible in the raw numbers he produced in his short but eventful time first time around with the squad.

 

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