Back in 2010, the Devils signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a frontloaded 17-year contract. It was an obvious attempt to clear cap space by sticking cheap, never-intended-to-be-honored seasons on the back end, and the NHL responded swiftly, voiding the deal and fining the Devils $3 million and first- and third-round picks. The hammer of NHL justice spares no man! Except Lou Lamoriello.
The NHL announced today that it is restoring the Devils' first round pick, as the 30th overall section this summer, along with $1.5 million. From the league's statement:
The Devils recently applied to the League for reconsideration and relief from a portion of the original penalty, citing primarily changes in circumstances which, in the Club's view, changed the appropriateness of the sanctions initially imposed. After due and thorough consideration, the League has decided that a modification of the original circumvention penalty associated with the Kovalchuk contract is warranted and, accordingly, has amended the sanctions...
The League intends to have no further comment on this matter.
Those "changes in circumstances" would presumably be the fact that Kovalchuk left the Devils last offseason to play in the KHL. Which doesn't change the fact that the Devils knowingly offered and signed a cap-circumventing column. If you're going to punish that—and the CBA didn't specifically prohibit frontloaded deals at the time, so the most charitable interpretation here is that the league is admitting it screwed up initially—you punish the intent, not the outcome.
This is some Mickey-Mouse sports league bullshit. Leaving a gaping CBA loophole. Arbitrarily punishing certain teams—but not others!—for exploiting it. Making up rules on the fly. Rescinding penalties four years later. Refusing to explain the rationale. This is a multi-billion-dollar international company, not some regional junior league. Lay out your rules and enforce them.
I don't believe for a second the Devils didn't know this was coming. They lost their third-round pick in 2011, but were given the option of when to forfeit their first-round choice. They held on to it the first three years, so 2014 was to be the fatal draft. At the time, it was inexplicably why they didn't opt to forfeit it in 2012, when they were slated to pick 29th—it wasn't going to get better than that. Now? It makes a hell of a lot more sense, if you're conspiratorially minded.
Other teams are understandably unhappy with the league's decision, with the prevailing theory being that this is the NHL doing the Devils' new ownership a solid. That makes some sense. The current folks had nothing to do with the Kovalchuk deal, and swooped in to take on an unprofitable team with massive debts. If the return of cash and a pick weren't part of the backchannel promises offered by the league during negotiations, I'll eat Stefan Matteau's draft cap.
But once again, this is the Lou Lamoriello show. The smartest man in hockey won the Kovalchuk deal from start to finish. First he worked within the rules to lock up an elite talent for the rest of his NHL career. Then he made sure Kovalchuk's "retirement" occurred just before the league's increased cap recapture penalties kicked in. Now this. I'll cede the last word, just in case you still thought the NHL was anything resembling a level playing field:
The Devils got more from the league today than the Islanders got for Vanek
— Forfeit Pick (@TStivali) March 6, 2014