Islander fans were given false hope when a simple inquiry by General Manager Garth Snow was taken to mean the Islanders were involved in the bidding for Ilya Kovalchuk’s services. An Atlanta Thrasher for all but the last 27 regular season games and first playoff round last year, he was a New Jersey Devil until his free agency started on July 1st. Kovalchuk’s demands were made plain for any General Manager to see. He wanted $100 million. As with a lot of big name free agents in this salary cap age, the teams that would be willing to spend it did not have the cap room and the teams that had the cap room would not spend so much money on one player.
The players in the market for Kovalchuk were believable except for the Islanders. The Devils were in the running to sign him long-term and had the advantage of seeing him fit in well with the team, scoring 27 points in those 27 games and he was one of the few players that had a good playoff series in the Devils’ 5-game loss to the Flyers in the first round. The Los Angeles Kings were also very interested in Kovalchuk as the Kings are ready to move from a lower-level playoff team to an elite team in the Western Conference. But, that kind of money was too rich for the Kings under the salary cap. Enter the Islanders. They have nothing but cap room, even when you consider some of the youth coming due for their next contracts over the next couple of years. The Islanders could easily afford Kovalchuk in a 10-year/$100 million type of deal. But, this would have been about as out-of-character as Garth Snow would have been in his entire Islanders’ management tenure to date.
Instead of channeling his inner Mike Milbury, Snow was patient and only “inquired”. But, the speculation started and Islander fans hopped right on the bandwagon. Did the Islander fans feel used? Maybe. Did they think they honestly had a chance? Yes. Owner Charles Wang has shown a propensity for making the unthinkable deal. Alexei Yashin was signed to a 10-year deal before the 2001-02 season. Rick DiPietro signed a “lifetime” 15-year contract before the 2006-07 season. The Yashin experiment ended in a buyout the Islanders are still paying to Yashin. DiPietro’s deal was the first of the “lifetime” contracts to franchise players. Since the deal was signed, it looked like a sound deal for the Islanders, but several injuries later, the deal has been laughable as the Isles continue to wait for DiPietro to get healthy.
While the fans may have thought Snow or the media toyed with their emotions, it was probably a good thing the Islanders did not reel him in. While Kovalchuk would have fit within the cap, he did not fit what the Islanders were trying to do, which is to build from within and grow together. Kovalchuk would have pushed the fast-forward button on the rebuild, which is not a bad thing. But, Coach Scott Gordon’s rules certainly would have had to have been different for Kovalchuk. With one player so far above the others in pay and NHL accomplishment, the player would have his own rules.
After a long, drawn-out process of courting, offers, pulled offers, and counteroffers, the Devils managed to sign Kovalchuk to a landmark 17-year/$102 million deal. But, even before the press coverage to announce the signing, the NHL was in touch with the Devils, letting them know they would fight the validity of the deal. Now, it is before an arbitrator to make a decision on whether the contract will stand. The decision is due by the end of the day on Monday. It is just as well the Devils or another team gets Kovalchuk. The biggest issue for Islander fans over the next 17 (or fewer) years is not that he is not an Islander, but that the Isles will face Kovalchuk six times a season for the next several years.
So, how should you root for the arbitration decision if you are Islander fan? Hope the arbitrator overturns the decision and declares Kovalchuk a free agent. Then, hope Kovalchuk and the Kings can figure out a way to work things out quickly before a team who is willing to pay Kovalchuk’s asking price, somehow clears up enough cap room to sign him. It would be tough, but the Rangers could always try to move salary and sign him. Having Kovalchuk inside the division would be the biggest problem, whether it is with the Devils or the Rangers.