The NHL got their wish as an arbitrator effectively turned back the clock on Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils.
Kovalchuk, 27, is once again an unrestricted free agent being pursued by the Devils after Richard Bloch rejected the Russian winger's epic 17-year, $102-million US contract, signed last month with New Jersey.
The Devils released a statement Monday night saying the club respects Bloch's ruling but they still hope to sign Kovalchuk, and reports indicate the team and star forward have returned to the bargaining table.
"While we do not currently have a contract with Ilya Kovalchuk, discussions have resumed and we are hopeful that a contract will be reached that meets with the principles in arbitrator Bloch's award and the NHL's approval," Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said.
Bloch sided with the NHL, who rejected the deal the same day Kovalchuk and the Devils officially came to terms, arguing that the Devils attempted to circumvent the league's salary cap.
In his ruling, Bloch concluded that "this contract is 'intended to, or has the effect" of defeating or circumventing the salary cap provisions of the CBA [collective bargaining agreement]."
Kovalchuk's deal was structured in such a way that the Devils would pay the winger $6 million in his first two seasons, rise sharply to $11.5 million for the following five seasons, and then level-off to $10.5 million, $8.5 million, $6.5 million and $3.5 million in single seasons before falling to $750,000 for 2021-22 and then $550,000 for the remaining six seasons, wrapping up in 2027.
The deal brought the salary cap hit down to a manageable $6 million a season by effectively placing $95 million of the payment in the first 10 years of the deal. Next season's cap is $59.4 million per team.
The arbitrator also noted the contract would expire by the time Kovalchuk was 44, well past retirement age for most players.
"The overall structure of this [contract] reflects not so much the hope that Mr. Kovalchuk will be playing in those advanced years, but rather the expectation that he will not," Bloch wrote.
The NHL Players' Association released its own statement, saying it was "disappointed with the arbitrator's ruling to uphold the NHL's rejection of the contract between the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk. The NHLPA is currently reviewing the decision and will have no further comment at this time."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly thanked Bloch for his decision.
"We want to thank arbitrator Bloch for his prompt resolution of a complex issue," Daly said in a prepared statement. "His ruling is consistent with the league's view of the manner in which the collective bargaining agreement should deal with contracts that circumvent the salary cap."
Bloch's ruling may open the door for the league to challenge recently signed front-loaded contracts given to Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, Chicago Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa, Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger and Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard.
All feature extra years and tapered salary.