Looking Back At New Jersey Devils Ilya Kovalchuk Punishment

It may seem like a long-lost memory, but there was a time when the New Jersey Devils were a team that was willing to go out and get the star player to make sure they stayed competitive. This wasn’t bargain hunting to try and get some kind of positive outcome, Lou Lamoriello was out here to make this team a Stanley Cup contender again. That’s why he sent defenseman Johnny Oduya, forwards Patrice Cormier and Niclas Bergfors, a 1st-round pick, and a 2nd-round pick to the Atlanta Thrashers for Ilya Kovalchuk.

Kovalchuk immediately made the Devils a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. They already had Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, and an aging Martin Brodeur. Now, they had one of the most dangerous snipers in the NHL.

So, when Kovalchuk went to free agency, the Devils made every move possible to sign him. The Los Angeles Kings were rumored to have a deal in place, but before they could hammer out the details, Lamoriello snuck in and gave Kovalchuk everything he wanted. That was to the tune of 17 years and $102 million. The deal would only cost the Devils $6 million on the salary cap despite having six seasons north of $10 million in the middle of the contract.

The NHL said this was cap circumvention, despite other teams signing similar contracts and no official rules actually were broken. Despite that, the NHL brought the hammer down on the Devils. Kovalchuk’s contract was canceled, and the Devils had to rework a new 15-year deal. The Devils could have lost Kovalchuk entirely if he decided to just take the Kings deal when the Devils deal got complicated.

The Devils did get Kovalchuk back, but the team faced punishment from the NHL, and it was hefty. Fines hit $3 million dollars, and the Devils lost a 1st-round pick and a 3rd-round pick. This, for signing a contract the NHL decided after the fact that it wasn’t proper. The Devils gained no advantage from this because the league canceled the deal.

After Kovalchuk retired, Lamoriello called on the league to drop the punishment, and the league agreed to pay back half the $3 million fine, and the Devils were given the 30th-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. The Devils could have selected Dylan Larkin or David Pastrnak, who were both available when the Devils were originally going to pick, but instead, they got John Quenneville. Cool.

When looking at punishments in other sports, the Devils don’t compare. The New England Patriots were fined $250,000 for Spygate. They were literally caught videotaping the other team’s practices, but the team only suffered a quarter of a million-dollar fine (although Bill Belichick was fined $500,000). They also lost a 1st-round pick. The only team fine we could find higher was the Houston Astros, who won a World Series while cheating. They did something that was explicitly against the rules and got caught. They were fined $5 million, and that still feels like it wasn’t enough.

The Devils tried to do something they thought was within the rulebook like so many teams have done before them. Marian Hossa‘s contract paid him $1 million for the final four years of the deal to bring the cap number to $5.275 million per season. The league put cap recapture systems in place to avoid these situations, which has the Devils still paying $250,000 a year on the salary cap to this Kovalchuk contract.

The punishment to the Devils was always ridiculous, and who knows the longstanding pain it caused (especially since Jeff Vanderbeek wasn’t exactly swimming in that kind of cash). We look today, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are able to put Nikita Kucherov on LTIR for an entire season, giving them a $98 million payroll with an $81.5 million salary cap. There will be no punishment for the Lightning. They will be celebrated for making a “smart” decision. Maybe it was for the best. Kovalchuk played four seasons after signing this contract. Under the old deal, the Devils would have paid him $11.5 million for the third and fourth seasons of the deal. That cap recapture would have hurt a lot worse than it did under the contract they eventually agreed to.