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New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur celebrates with teammates Travis Zajac (19) and Andy Greene (6) after the DEvils defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final playoff hockey series in Philadelphia May 8, 2012. (Reuters)

New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur celebrates with teammates Travis Zajac (19) and Andy Greene (6) after the DEvils defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final playoff hockey series in Philadelphia May 8, 2012.

(Reuters)

Jeff Vanderbeek strikes again Add to ...

This will be the only story about Travis Zajac’s new contract that will not start with a Bill Daly reference.

Nope, no “hill we will die on” references here. We have too much respect for the NHL’s deputy commissioner for that.

Okay, sorry Bill. I honestly do feel bad about the non-stop jokes about your famous remark that a five-year limit on player contracts is “the hill we will die on.” Anyone who knows Daly knows he is usually measured in his answers. The frenzied outburst was commissioner Gary Bettman’s territory, at least as far as the most recent lockout went.

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I mean, you try and negotiate with the inscrutable Donald Fehr for long hours and then walk into a room full of bright lights, cameras and smart alecks with microphones and digital recorders and keep your cool. As soon as we heard that line, me and every other sports writer within earshot cringed because we knew Daly would get clobbered with it hourly in the overkill age of social media.

So once again, I’m sorry Bill. But really, your owners don’t make it easy on you.

I mean, it’s been, what, two hours since the lockout ended (okay, nine days) and the first eight-year contract was handed out on Wednesday. Even worse, the owner who awarded the $46-million (all currency U.S.) to New Jersey Devils centre Travis Zajac is the same guy who made his general manager, Lou Lamoriello, sign Ilya Kovalchuk to that front-loaded, 15-year, $100-million contract back in 2010 that drove all the other owners crazy and made them declare war on such deals by trying to limit lengths and the difference in pay from year to year.

Not only that, but Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek also had to be rescued from his bankers shortly before the lockout ended. Well, the way the Devils press release was worded, Vanderbeek bought out his partners and reached an agreement with his bankers on restructuring the franchise’s debt, which was thought to be north of $200-million on both the team and the arena.

Folks in the financial community say the “buyout” consisted of Mike Gilfillan and his billionaire father-in-law Ray Chambers handing over $25-million and walking away from their 47-per-cent interest. It should be noted Chambers got out first, about a year ago. When the buyout was finally announced, Gilfillan and another fellow who had six per cent were the last partners standing.

At the same time it was announced CIT Group, which just happens to be the official investment bank of the NHL and holds the league’s line of credit, had “restructured” the Devils’ debt. That is banker-speak for taking a haircut on the amount owed. More than one banker or lawyer familiar with the story said they would not be surprised if it happened after Bettman applied one of his famous double-arm-bars to a banker or two.

So you can imagine how pleased some NHL owners might be that Vanderbeek was the first guy to sign a player for the maximum term allowed in the new collective agreement.

In hockey terms, though, it’s not a bad deal for the Devils. Since they lost Zach Parise to the Minnesota Wild as a free agent last summer, it was imperative they lock up their most important centre. Zajac, 27, has produced more than 60 points only twice in his six NHL seasons but he is still considered to be capable of more. He missed most of last season with an Achilles tendon injury but came back to be the Devils’ best skater in their run to the Stanley Cup final.

The contract also illustrates where the NHL and NHL Players’ Association settled on term limits and salary variance. Since Zajac is staying with the Devils, he was able to sign for eight years rather than seven (the limit for anyone changing teams) for a total of $46-million.

The yearly salary and bonuses are also within the allowed annual variance of 35 per cent and the highest year is no more than 50-per-cent better than the lowest year. The salary-cap hit is also $5.75-million, not bad for a player of Zajac’s calibre.

In the first year of the deal, Zajac will get $3.5-million, then he goes to $5-million in year two and up to $6.5-million from the third year through the sixth. In the last two years of the contract, his pay drops to his cap number, $5.75-million.

More than one writer noted Zajac’s lower pay in the first two years could be designed to protect him from a healthy salary bite through escrow. It also helps Vanderbeek, since money is a little tight right now.

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