Cost of Kovalchuk keeps escalating

Add $3 million dollars and a first- and third-round draft pick to the cost of signing Ilya Kovalchuk.

Despite arbitrator Richard Bloch noting that the Devils did not act in poor faith when they first signed Kovalchuk to the 17-year, $102M contract he interpreted as a form of salary cap circumvention, the NHL nevertheless severely punished New Jersey for the attempt.

The penalty, issued Monday night, strips the Devils of their third-round pick in the 2011 draft and a first-round draft pick sometime in the next four years.

Even as many debate whether the acquisition of Kovalchuk will help the Devils, the cost keeps escalating. The first price was a package of the Devils’ 2010 first-round pick, Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors and prospect Patrice Cormier, sent to Atlanta for Kovalchuk, in addition to Anssi Salmella and flipping second-round picks with the Thrashers. Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record has a running tab over at the Fire and Ice Blog. (And bartender … keep it open.)

Because of Kovalchuk’s new contract, New Jersey must still balance its salary-cap ledger by shedding at least $3M from its 2010-11 player payroll, which will likely require two players to be traded or relegated to the minor leagues/a European team. Should one of those players be talented young center Travis Zajac, or if Kovalchuk’s signing prohibits them from retaining 26-year-old star Zach Parise -- a restricted free agent after the season -- the move may well be indefensible without a Stanley Cup to balance the columns.

Trading Zajac is a last resort, but the most likely trade candidates all carry bad contracts most teams are in no hurry to acquire. And the league requirement for salary cap compliance by the start of the NHL season already strips Devils GM Lou Lamoriello of any and all leverage. Some media speculated that Lamoriello may have to entice trading partners by adding a top prospect or draft pick in addition to The Expendables -- Dainius Zubrus and Bryce Salvador, the most likely players for the Devils to deal.

But now short two more future draft picks, New Jersey’s picks and prospects become even more valuable (New Jersey already swapped its 2011 second-round pick in exchange for Jason Arnott this summer), particularly as the team looks for young, cost-controlled players to balance against Kovalchuk’s $6.67M cap hit. Fortunately for the Devils, the $3M fine will not count against the team’s salary cap, as it could have under league rules. That concession was “won” at the time the Kovalchuk deal was signed, after negotiations between the league and the NHLPA, according to an AP report.

However, with the other teams under scrutiny for possible salary cap circumvention at that time -- the Flyers (Chris Pronger’s contract), the Blackhawks (Marian Hossa), the Canucks (Roberto Luongo) and the Bruins (Marc Savard) – going unpunished by the league, it certainly provides the appearance the Devils are being made the scapegoat for franchises with similar sins. After many of those pacts were finalized last season, the league did warn team to stop signing players to such excessive, long-term deals, so perhaps New Jersey shouldn’t have been surprised by the ruling. However, the league did still accept those previous deals, while the Devils were the team out of which the NHL finally made an example.

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