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By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There has been one NHL story this summer that refuses to go away and a ruling on Monday ensured that the saga will continue.
Independent arbitrator Richard Bloch upheld the NHL's decision that the New Jersey Devils' 17-year, $102 million contract offer to superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk should be voided on grounds that the deal circumvented the salary cap. Bloch's decision means Kovalchuk -- the biggest free agent available this summer -- will once again hit the summer market.
Of course, the Devils and Kovalchuk are now free to restructure the contract and submit a new deal that the NHL would accept, or the Russian winger may choose to sign with another NHL club or even join a KHL team in his homeland.
In the end, Kovalchuk will land a lucrative contract from some organization, but the true brunt of Monday's arbitration decision will be borne by the league as a whole.
The real mystery is what these contract investigations will lead to. The league can't seriously be considering voiding these deals as well, can they? I'm no expert in legalese, but one segment of Bloch's ruling makes it patently obvious that the NHL will void Luongo's contract, as well as other deals, if they can.
Concerning Kovalchuk, the NHLPA made the assertion that the league's previous validation of Luongo's contract and similar deals meant that Kovalchuk's deal with the Devils should be valid as well.
But Bloch's response to that argument couldn't have been more decidedly in the NHL's favor: "The apparent purpose of this evidence is to suggest that the League's concern is late blooming and/or inconsistent. Several responses are in order: First, while the contracts have, in fact, been registered, their structure has not escaped League notice: those SPCs [standard player's contracts] are being investigated currently with at least the possibility of a subsequent withdrawal of the registration."
It seems apparent from that statement that Bloch has given the NHL everything it needs to arm itself for a legal war against front-loaded contracts. However, the NHL would be wise not to become overconfident because there will be a much greater pushback by the NHLPA to defend the older contracts than there was to stand up for the newer Kovalchuk deal.
It just doesn't seem right that the league can void deals so long after they already validated them. Pronger and Hossa signed their deals last summer, while Luongo's 12-year extension was inked and approved by the league last September.
Going back to void these contracts now and make these players free agents is akin to putting toothpaste back into the tube; it's just going to make a mess and ultimately isn't going to work anyway. The league has already made its point with the Kovalchuk ruling and now that it has the precedent set by Bloch, the NHL should concentrate on preventing front-loaded deals in the future, not on targeting contracts that have already been registered.
It's my guess that the league will not succeed in voiding the older deals, but they may be able to levy fines and possibly take draft picks away from the guilty teams.
Of course, the wider issue here is how front-loaded contracts will be addressed in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. The league's current CBA expires after the 2011-12 season and this topic will surely be on the table when the new contract between the league and the NHLPA is being constructed.
There is no doubt that NHL won a clear legal victory on Monday, but there are many battles still to be fought on this topic. Perhaps the NHLPA will win the next one.