Manipulation vs. Investment: Why the Caps are Kosher

There's nothing like a front-loaded, long-term deal to get tongues wagging around the NHL, and people inside the League and out have had plenty to talk about in recent years. Are they unfair? Is it legal under the current CBA? Can Chris Pronger really be expected to play until he's 42? 

And yet none has raised as many eyebrows as Ilya Kovalchuk's new deal that would keep him in Newark for the next seventeen years. The complex, multi-tiered contract presented to Kovalchuk by the Devils calls for a maximum salary of $11.5 million before plummeting to below a million for each of the last six years. The cap hit for the Devils? A fiscally sound $6 million a year. Forget raised eyebrows, this behemoth of a contract raised some red flags at the NHL's front office:

The contract has been rejected by the League as a circumvention of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under the CBA, the contract rejection triggers a number of possible next steps that may be elected by any or each of the NHLPA, the Player and/or the Club. - NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

It's certainly not surprising that the League chose to step in, given the somewhat questionable structure of the deal and how blatantly it attempts to dodge the "spirit" of the salary cap. And it's equally unsurprising that this contract has returned our attention to those that have come before, from the Prongers to the Marian Hossas and everything in between.

What is surprising is how frequently the names Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are coming up in the same breath as, for example, Roberto Luongo. Whether it's ignorance or simple laziness, the recent deals inked for each of the young Caps are being lumped in with every front-loaded contract that won't expire until the player in question is rocking adult diapers - regardless of the fact that the deals are in no way related.

First and foremost there's the obvious point that neither Backstrom's deal nor Ovechkin's is front-loaded in an attempt to garner a more favorable salary cap. Quite the opposite, in fact. Backstrom will start with a salary of $6 million and see it increase gradually to a maximum of $8 million - in the final year of his contract. Ovechkin, meanwhile, will get a moderate $1 million raise (from $9 million to $10 million) in 2014-15 but will collect the same paycheck every year until the contract expires in 2021. 

By contrast, if the Kovalchuk deal is allowed to stand he will collect $98.5 million of the total $102 million, or almost 97% of the total value, in the first eleven years of the contract - with six more years remaining to pick up just $3.5 million. 

Yup, that's what some would call "front-loaded".

It's not just money that separates the Backstroms and Ovechkins from the Kovalchuks, of course. Also of issue is the length of term - or to put it more bluntly, how freakin' old will this guy be when his contract expires?

The seventeen year deal means that 27-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk will be under contract until he's 44. And while Chris Chelios has taught us nothing if not the fact that age is merely a number, the reality is there just aren't many guys who are able to play into their 40s - and those that do have to prove they can still play before earning a new contract. Kovalchuk could very well play until he's 44, but the contract is likely structured under the assumption that he will retire before the end of or upon completion of his deal.

Meanwhile here in Washington, Ovechkin and Backstrom are signed until they are 36 and 32, respectively. Plenty of viable playing years left, as the Boss himself pointed out:

"I did a long-term deal with Alex Ovechkin when he was 22 or 23 years old and he'll be coming off it when he's 36, and it's a straight line for his salary-cap hit. And the way this deal was structured it makes the salary cap hit different, and maybe not appropriate."

Time will tell if the Kovalchuk deal is allowed to stand. Greater minds and cooler heads (or just a pack of lawyers) will examine the CBA and determine if there's been any wrongdoing on the part of the player, the agent or the team. And this will certainly be a topic of discussion between the NHL and the NHLPA leading up to the next CBA, as well as among fans and media members alike during and after said negotiations.

But discussion of loopholes and cap-friendly deals should stop at the Potomac River's edge, because the Caps didn't lock up Ovechkin and Backstrom long-term to circumvent anything or dramatically alleviate the cap hit. They did so because the team believes they are core players and will be for the foreseeable future. They did so at or in the neighborhood of market value for comparable players, and over the course of the entire contract - unlike Kovalchuk, who if he even gets to the final six years will almost certainly be well below market value.

It wasn't a manipulation but an investment, a sign that these are their guys going forward. And it doesn't take a pack of lawyers - or a rabbi - to tell us that it was all completely kosher.

Major h/t to capgeek.com for continuing to be a resource of awe-inspiring magnitude, and for providing the details of the KovalchukOvechkin and Backstrom deals.

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