Philadelphia Flyers fans understand the frustration that arises from being handcuffed by a salary cap. As a team built every season to “win now,” the Flyers are very often right up against the cap. In the offseason, the Flyers traded longtime hero Simon Gagne to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a 4th round draft pick and marginal defenseman Matt Walker to relieve cap space. While the trade was difficult to swallow, it allowed the team to get under the cap and move on. For the New Jersey Devils, however, their cap woes are just beginning.
The Devils went to war with the Los Angeles Kings during the summer to see who could sign superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk and his “impressive” 8 playoff point experience to the most ridiculous contract in NHL history. Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, with pressure from ownership, claimed victory as Kovalchuk signed a 17-year, $102 million contract that would see the Russian sniper playing until he was 44.
The NHL, unsurprisingly, rejected the contract on the grounds that it circumvented the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which an independent arbitrator also found to be the case. They ultimately accepted a revised contract for Kovalchuk at $100 million over 15 years, while revising the CBA to eliminate the loophole that seemingly allowed the first contract. They also chose to fine the team $3 million and a first and third round draft pick in a future NHL entry draft.
Some would say that it was generous of the league not to reduce the Devils’ available cap space, but I think they already realized that the Devils were going to be in a bad place this season. As it stands, the Devils are currently over the cap by about $3.4 million and have only managed to continue due to players on long term injured reserve (LTIR). Among the injured players is Bryce Salvador, who received a mysterious “ear injury” from Flyer James Van Riemsdyk during the preseason. Many had thought that the Devils would make a move not unlike the Flyers’ aforementioned Gagne trade; unfavorable, but necessary to move on.
Instead, the Devils have opted to delay the inevitable. Yesterday, the Devils were forced to play with just fifteen players as a result of injuries to their best defenseman Anton Volchenkov and Brian Rolston and a suspension for Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. With only $81K in LTIR relief, the Devils can’t afford to call anyone up and will dress only sixteen players on Wednesday. Earlier today, they waived Leblond and signed Adam Mair, which will amount to virtually no help.
As tough as this is for fans to swallow, it has to be equally tough for the players themselves. Professionals they may be, but many have children that are well into the school year and are well aware that any one of them could be moved at a moment’s notice. According to NHL.com, captain Jamie Langenbrunner was quoted, “We’ve got to get under the cap, and I think that’s going to weigh on some guys’ minds… Any of us are vulnerable. Obviously, the team is not in a great bargaining position. Everyone knows we have to cut salary, so it’s a question of what other teams will take.”
Not only are they in the uncomfortable position of playing the waiting game, but they have been relegated to playing as a team that is at a serious disadvantage in the most competitive hockey league in the world. All thanks to a Russian who thinks he should be paid more than every other player in the same league and an organization that agrees.
Well, at least the Devils fans can watch him fight Mike Green. That has to be worth the price of admission, right?