Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils are on the sidelines as the NHL and the NHL Players' Association battle over the contentious issue of long-term contracts.
Sources said Thursday that Kovalchuk's 15-year, $100-million (all currency U.S.) contract has become "a pawn" in the league's bid to ensure that no more salary-cap-bending deals are signed before the NHL's collective agreement expires in 2012.
Other contracts in the NHL's sights are those of Vancouver Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo and Chicago Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa, both of which are similarly front-loaded and were signed last summer.
The league and the NHLPA are mired in negotiations over this type of long-term deal, attempting to find common ground for what will be permitted under the collective agreement. Early indications are that Friday's 5 p.m. EDT deadline may need to be extended before a consensus is reached.
Neither Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, nor Devils GM Lou Lamoriello have had any input into the discussions since they submitted the latest version of a contract for league approval last week.
"They're not a party to this at all," one source said.
Following the rejection and subsequent arbitration process for Kovalchuk's original 17-year, $102-million deal earlier this summer, negotiations toward a new contract became protracted as members of the league and union staffs weighed in on the validity of various proposals.
With the Devils' training camp only three weeks away, a contract was finally sent for approval last Friday in the hopes Kovalchuk would be signed in time.
Without clear guidelines for what would be approved, however, frustration was running high.
"They came to them with certain things, and the league said, well, okay, we don't like this," a source with knowledge of the negotiations said. "Then they came with different things [and were again turned down] … After a while, it just became next to impossible."
The situation has agents worried about the NHL's future interference in contract negotiations, a process that's supposed to take place between agents and teams using the terms of the collective agreement.
"It's all just ridiculous, when it comes down to it," said one agent who asked to remain anonymous. "Has the NHL now put themselves in a position where teams are going to go to them with every contract that has what you'd call a twist in it? I'm sure the league would love to negotiate all the contracts. They apparently are on this one."
It doesn't help that the union is leaderless. Donald Fehr, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, is only an unpaid adviser, although the NHLPA's search committee has recommended that he be hired as the union's executive director.
A New York newspaper reported Thursday that Fehr has asked for a $3-million salary, and for his brother, Steve, to join him on the PA's staff. The NHLPA's 30 player representatives are weighing those two issues.
Fehr is involved with the Kovalchuk situation in some capacity, but is far from leading the charge, which leaves the union in a poor position when it comes to negotiating something as controversial as alterations to the collective agreement.
"They're in a quite vulnerable position right now," another agent said of the NHLPA. "I think the league's people are far more experienced and they understand the situation better. If they decide to go down the road to Armageddon [by voiding contracts] I think they know what they're doing."