End in sight for Kovalchuk saga...maybe

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's shocking that Ilya Kovalchuk has not yet found a home for the 2010-11 season, and now it appears the biggest hockey story of the summer will linger on until at least the end of the week.

The hockey world awaited the NHL's ruling on the New Jersey Devils' latest contract offer to the Russian winger, but that decision, which was supposed to be delivered by 5 p.m. (et) on Wednesday, has been postponed. According to a statement released by the league about an hour before that deadline, the NHL and the NHLPA mutually agreed to push the decision back until 5 p.m. (et) on Friday.

The Twitterverse has already had fun with the cluelessness of the NHL's decision to possibly announce the biggest signing of the summer while most folks in the U.S. will have already shifted gears to their Labor Day weekend plans. But, in the age of the Blackberry, social networking and ESPN's bottom line, if you truly care about the Kovalchuk decision, then most likely you will come across the information at some point this weekend.

Of course, the real story here is what this delay means in terms of the NHL's ultimate decision concerning Kovalchuk and the Devils. It could be good news for the Devils if the league likes what it sees, but just needs additional time to go over some finer points of the contract with the NHLPA. Or, maybe the NHL is closer to rejecting the deal and the players association is trying to convince league officials otherwise.

It's hard to say what Ilya Kovalchuk will decide to do if this latest deal is rejected.
It's all more or less speculation at this point because so much of the Kovalchuk story this summer has unfolded behind closed doors. Also, in order to truly understand the sticking points at the heart of the controversy one would be forced to sift through the legal gobbledygook that permeates the Collective Bargaining Agreement, a task I wouldn't wish on anybody.

What we do know is that the NHL seems to hold the upper hand in this battle, since independent arbitrator Richard Bloch upheld the league's decision to void the previous contract agreed upon by the Devils and the superstar sniper. That deal was worth $102 million over 17 years while the contract that was submitted to the league last week is reported to be for 15 years and $100 million, according to Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet.ca.

The real issue at hand is the NHL's insistence on stopping teams from deliberately circumventing the salary cap, and judging by the breakdown released by Kypreos, the Devils certainly took the league's concerns seriously this time around. The annual cap hit jumped from $6 million to $6.67 million and the new deal is not as dramatically front-loaded as the contract that was previously rejected by the league.

If the deal is accepted, the Devils will obviously be happy to have landed Kovalchuk on a long-term basis, but they won't have ample time to celebrate. The winger's big contract will force New Jersey to make some moves to get under the salary cap by the last day of training camp, something the Devils will be more than willing to do to make room for a guy who has amassed 338 goals and 642 points over 621 NHL games.

On the other hand, it's hard to say what Kovalchuk will decide to do if this latest deal is rejected. He may decide to jump ship for Russia and the KHL, which begins its season on September 8, or he could remain in North America and continue to try and work a deal out with the Devils or another NHL team. Although, at this point it appears that Jersey is the leader in a one-team race for Kovalchuk's services.

If Kovalchuk does decide to play professionally next season in Russia, he is likely to remain in his home country for the entire campaign. Earlier reports indicating that he would have an NHL "out" clause if he signed with a KHL club in 2010-11 were refuted by Kovalchuk's Russian agent Yuri Nikolaev, who said his client would play at least a full season in the KHL if he went to play there at all.

In the long run Kovalchuk will get what is coming to him. He is one of the supreme goal-scorers in the world, and at 27 years old, is simply trying to get paid accordingly for the special set of offensive skills he brings to the ice. The fact that his search for a fair free-agent deal has become bogged down in a battle between the NHL and the players association is unfortunate, but should not be blamed on Kovalchuk.

Here's hoping Kovalchuk and the Devils get what they want Friday afternoon, because this is one saga that has gone on way too long.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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