So why did the NHL step up and kill the Ilya Kovalchuk contract with the New Jersey Devils, when similarly structured deals have passed muster in the past?
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, the NHL has been troubled for some time by the practice of front-loading contracts - in which players receive the bulk of their dollars in the early part of their deals - but was never willing to challenge the Players' Association because there is no specific wording in the collective bargaining agreement that forbade the practice.
Instead, the CBA - under article 26.3 - has a vaguely worded clause that prevents teams from entering into any agreements "intended to defeat or circumvent the provisions of this agreement" - an agreement that includes a hard salary cap that rises and falls based total NHL revenue and contains both a spending ceiling and floor.
The league was said to be troubled by a couple of long-term contracts signed by Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen two years ago already, but the deals expire before the players reach the age of 40, so they let them pass. The next round of long-term contracts - for Chris Pronger, Roberto Luongo and Marian Hossa - extended the terms until the respective players turned 42, an age where few play any more.
Hossa's contract was particularly troubling because it lasts 12 years, but from Year 7 to Year 9 drops from $7.9-million to $1-million in annual compensation. Even though it looked fishy, the league determined that it couldn't prove a circumvention on the strength of the contract alone, so they let that one pass as well.
Investigations into those three deals by independent counsel remain active and if any of the parties involved in the negotiations erred at some point in their communications with regard to the contract's extended term, they could still be tossed out.
The Devils' deal with Kovalchuk, they determined, went one step too far and thus brought them to the point where they felt if they had to litigate the matter, they had a decent chance to win.
It is the longest contract on record in the 21st century NHL and runs until the age of 44, which has also never happened on a long-term contract before. Moreover, the final six years, worth a modest $3.5-million in total, almost provides an incentive for Kovalchuk to retire, given that he'd been paid $98.5-million already over the first 11 years of the deal.
OFFICIAL STATEMENTS FROM NHL AND NHLPA
National Hockey League Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly today issued the following statement regarding the free agent contract forward signed with the : "The contract has been rejected by the League as a circumvention of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under the CBA, the contract rejection triggers a number of possible next steps that may be elected by any or each of the NHLPA, the Player and/or the Club. In the interim, the player is not entitled to play under the contract, nor is he entitled to any of the rights and benefits that are provided for there under. The League will have no further comment on this matter pending further developments."
NHLPA spokesman Jon Weatherdon issued the following statement today in response to the NHL's ruling on Ilya Kovalchuk's contract: "The NHLPA is currently analyzing the basis upon which the NHL rejected the contract between the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk. We are evaluating the options available to us under the terms established in the CBA. The NHLPA will have no further comment at this time."