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New Jersey Devils star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, of Russia, smiles during a news conference in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, July 20, 2010. (Mel Evans/AP)
New Jersey Devils star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, of Russia, smiles during a news conference in Newark, N.J., Tuesday, July 20, 2010. (Mel Evans/AP)

Message received, NHL insiders say in wake of Kovalchuk contract clash Add to ...

The record $3-million (U.S.) fine and the loss of first- and third-round draft picks levied against the New Jersey Devils as punishment for the first version of Ilya Kovalchuk's contract is all about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman delivering a hard message to owners and general managers: We warned you about trying to circumvent the salary cap, and these are the consequences.

There was also no coincidence in the timing of the announcement. It came on the eve of Tuesday's board of governors meeting in New York because, according to an NHL source who requested anonymity, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly wanted to make sure every team representative realized the new standard for player contracts recently negotiated with the NHL Players' Association must be followed.

That was the nearly unanimous opinion of a group of NHL governors, GMs and player agents - all of whom requested anonymity because they did not want to provoke the ire of Bettman, who decreed there would be no official comment from the league. An equal number of governors and GMs declined to make any comment at all.

"It sends a strong message of circumvention of the cap, which we've been told all along won't be tolerated," one NHL GM said Tuesday. "[Bettman]has told us all at meetings not to circumvent the cap. So, if you're a part of the league and part of the meetings, I don't think there is any surprise here."

One prominent player agent said Bettman essentially told the owners: "If you screw around like that [with the cap] there will be consequences."

One source who was in the governors meeting said the tension grew quickly when the subject of the Devils fine came up. But no one jumped up to support Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello, although many NHL sources say the driving force behind signing Kovalchuk was team owner Jeff Vanderbeek.

The only comment from the Devils came in a terse statement issued by Lamoriello after the fine was announced Monday: "We disagree with the decision. We acted in good faith and did nothing wrong. We will have no further comment."

One league source wondered why there was any punishment at all. He pointed out that the first (later rejected) version of the Kovalchuk contract - which reduced the cap hit by making the salary in the last five years of the 17-year, $102-million deal at the NHL minimum - has a similar structure to contracts for Chris Pronger, Marian Hossa and Roberto Luongo that were approved by the league.

Once the Kovalchuk contract was rejected by the league, a grievance was filed by the player. An arbitrator decided the contract was an attempt to get around the salary cap, but said all sides acted in good faith.

"So the contract never went into effect; it was never approved," the source said. "The contract was then renegotiated, submitted to the league and was approved. There was no circumvention."

However, another NHL source said the fact the arbitrator said there was an attempt to circumvent the cap was enough under NHL bylaws to allow the sanctions against the Devils.

The only person to speak on the record about the situation was Devils forward Zach Parise, who was only concerned about what Kovalchuk's presence will do for the team on the ice.

Parise gave Kovalchuk's signing a thumbs-up, even if it came at a high cost, and will make for an interesting time when his own contract comes up for negotiation next year.

"You want to play with good players and you want to surround yourself with good players," Parise said. "Having him for a full season [Kovalchuk was acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Thrashers late in the 2009-10 season] we'll be more comfortable with him and he'll be more comfortable playing with us.

"At times last year, we were still trying to figure it out. This season, we won't be forcing pucks to him when we shouldn't be. I'm happy about that. I'm excited about it. I'm glad we got him. I think he'll make us better."

But one player agent pointed out that improvement came with a high price: three first-round picks (represented by the one Lamoriello gave up as part of the original trade last March with the Thrashers, plus former first-rounder Niclas Bergfors, and the first-rounder to be forfeited as part of the NHL's punishment).

It also cost the Devils a solid defenceman in Johnny Oduya (traded to Atlanta) and now Lamoriello will have to trade away more roster players to get under the $59.4-million cap.

"That was a huge price to pay for [Kovalchuk]" the agent said.

The governors did conduct one piece of business at their meeting Tuesday, when they approved a rules change that drops shootout wins from the totals for the playoff tiebreaker between teams who are tied in points at the end of the season. Previously, all wins including shootouts were counted for purposes of breaking ties.

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