Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wait, more Kovalchuk drama?


Well... I guess it's not over with Ilya Kovalchuk's 2010-11 hockey destination.

In a move I can only refer to as stunning, the NHL has rejected Kovalchuk's 17-year, $102 million contract with New Jersey, citing grounds of its length and the low payments over the final six years.

If you read this blog, you probably read Michael Russo's, so you already know the final six years of Kovalchuk's contract average $583,000. Each salary during those six years is under $1 million, and, to steal a Russo Tweet, is the most blatant of these cap-cheating contracts.

I believe I've railed against these contracts before. There's something about a player being paid $3 or $4 million more than his cap hit that should rile up anyone who's not a fan of that team. In Kovalchuk's case, it would be nearly double over a third of his contract, when he'd be pulling in a salary of $11.5 million for five straight seasons but have a cap hit of just $6 million.

This raises the question of why the NHL didn't reject any of the other contracts like this. Off the top of my head, these include Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit), Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith (Chicago), Chris Pronger (Philadelphia*), Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay) and Roberto Luongo (Vancouver). Each of those contracts drop sharply in annual salary over the final few years, but none as drastically as Kovalchuk's.

(* - Pronger, as a 35+ player, can't retire and have the cap hit disappear, but the annual hit is lowered over a period of time.)

That, apparently, is why they were approved and not Kovalchuk's.

So what's next? Well, the Devils and Kovalchuk can re-structure the deal. More likely, the NHLPA will file a grievance (it has five days to do so) and then an arbitrator will decide. Hopefully the arbitrator - assuming it gets that far - will rule in favor of the league. These contracts are legal by the letter of the law but violate the spirit of the salary cap, and a clause exists that allows the league to terminate such attempts to circumvent the cap.

Also hopefully, this will be the first step in doing away with these kinds of contracts. Whether that means a term limit in the next collective bargaining agreement or some other solution that doesn't have a flagrant loophole, I don't know, but it needs to be done.

We'll see if it actually happens.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's over


Our long National Hockey League nightmare is over. No longer will we wonder where a certain free agent will spend his future seasons.

Yes, fans, you heard it correct.

It took quite a while, much longer than expected but we finally have an answer. And he's staying put.

I, KiPA, will continue bringing my talents to Hitting the Post. I know many people wondered where I would be blogging next season, and I will say that I fielded many several a few one or two offers from other blogs, including one from overseas. In the end, I decided to remain right here.

OK, yeah, Nick may have offered me 51 percent of the site's proceeds, making me majority partner, but so what? I think this is where I have my best chance of winning. And yeah, OK, maybe he's one of the only three people who showed any interest, but so what? I'm happy here.

Oh yeah, that Ilya dude finally signed somewhere. But whatever. He's yesterday's news.

But if you think I'm not going to take this chance to rail again against people on Twitter, you don't know me.

Kovalchuk stayed in New Jersey, despite many twits "reporting" that he and the Kings were moving closer to a deal. I'm so glad all those many tidbits of info amounted to so much substance.

Anyway. Kovalchuk's deal seems to be 17 years for $102 million. That's an annual cap hit of $6 million even though he'll be making $10 million each of the first eight years of the contract. From what I've gathered, it's a bit of a stunner that staunch league ally Lou Lamiorello signs a player to a long-term, cap-cheating contract like this one.

That puts New Jersey over the salary cap now and the Devils need to move some bodies. Most likely to be dealt: Brian Rolston and his $5 million cap hit for another two seasons for a 37-year-old who netted 35 goals and 69 points total the last two years.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

On Kovalchuk


If the NHL was as popular in the United States as the NBA is, or if ESPN ever talked about hockey, I wonder if the ongoing Ilya Kovalchuk drama would be as big a story as Lebron James' departure from Cleveland. Probably not, because Kovalchuk isn't a hometown boy leaving his team, but it surely would be a close second.

I, for one, am just about tired of Kovalchuk and at this point would like to see him scoot off to Mother Russia and leave the NHL behind. I've never really been a big fan of Kovalchuk to begin with (but thanks for helping win me a fantasy championship last season, Ilya!) but it didn't quite border on hatred.

I'm at that point now.

What it boils down to is Kovalchuk wanting to be the highest paid, or at least second highest, player in the NHL. Since he was buried in Atlanta for all but the last month and a half of last season, he also wants to go to a place to win. Yet he can't seem to get it through his thick skull that if he averages $9 to $10 million a season over 10 years, he'll seriously screw up his team's salary cap and hamper the general manager's ability to surround him with talent.

It says something that only two teams appeared to be major players in the Kovalchuk Sweepstakes: New Jersey and Los Angeles. And if the Devils pursue him too much, that'll hurt their chances to retain Zach Parise next summer.

So we're down to the Kings, pretty much. Not even Kovalchuk's countrymen in the KHL are throwing dollars rubles at him. If reports are accurate, he's only being offered something like $9 million for three years. (I don't remember if that's annual or total. Presumably annual.)

However, we've heard at least twice that Kovalchuk-to-Kings is dead. Maybe three times. One of those we even got a "dead for good this time." Yet what was all the almost-but-not really-news on Twitter Friday? That Kovalchuk and the Kings cleared some hurdles in negotiations.

As a Twitter hater, I blame that. No one's actually reporting anything, but everyone wants to be first with it. They're as bad as those losers on message boards who post "FIRST!" in a forum any time a new post is made. How many times do Kovalchuk and the Kings have to go around and around before these reporters wait until he actually signs somewhere before saying anything?

But that's not the point. The point is Kovalchuk is being a stubborn fool who's showing all he really cares about is money.

I used to think Los Angeles was a prime location for his services. He's just about what they need - a legit, consistent and elite goal scoring threat. Maybe Eastern writers would even pay attention to the Kings with his kind of star power on the squad. Never mind the emerging greatness of Anze Kopitar, the great budding power forward in Dustin Brown, next Olympics USA darling Jon Quick, and of course Drew Doughty.

Now I'm wondering how Kovalchuk's ego will fit in that locker room.

Look, if you want to be somewhere, you'll make it happen. You'll lower your demands and come to a reasonable compromise that gets you yours and also leaves the team with room to pay other players. Dean Lombardi is not going to risk not having the salary cap space to pay Doughty and Jack Johnson, who are both restricted free agents in 2011.

Assuming Kovalchuk signs in LA - at least until we get another "it's dead, honestly, I mean it, pinkie swear" on Twitter - then the Kings become very dangerous. On paper. I wonder if, given all the drama the last two and a half weeks, some of the current Kings players might not silently ask about Kovalchuk's true desires, if he signed in LA because the Kings were the only team offering him boatloads of cash or if he actually wants to be part of a winning organization.

In the regular season, it'll probably work without a problem. When push comes to shove in the playoffs though, and Kovalchuk's heart and grit are tested, we'll see if he reacts like he has in his previous playoff outings - that would be three goals (one into an empty net) in nine games - or if he's actually managed to find some toughness in his game.

Regardless, Kovalchuk's character has already taken a hit in my book. This isn't an aging player looking for one last payday before the end. This is a player in his prime (he's 27) who's been on losing teams most of his career.

Do you want to win, or do you just want money?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mikko Gets Paid

And, just to make sure I get this out there, he deserves it. And I, as a fan, needed Fletch to get this deal done.

I think Mikko's a very good hockey player. I think he's in the 2nd tier of top centers in the league. Even the upper echelons of that 2nd tier. He's strong in all three zones, improving on the dots and his compete is out of this world. That's what you want in a captain, top TOI, "on for a draw in the last seconds protecting a lead," "on for a draw in the last seconds needing a goal," kind of guy.

And, make no mistake about it, he IS that guy on the Wild.

But - all else being equal - would he be that guy in Anaheim? Vancouver? Chicago? Detroit?

Look, I realize this is academic, but I try real hard to not get all fanboy about the Wild or its players/personnel (so, in other words, academic is what I do here.) But there's no way Mikko's worth as much to the Ducks, Canucks, Hawks or Wings as Getzlaf, Henrik, Toews and Datsyuk are, respectively. His 2nd tier top center status means he's a 2nd line center on those squads. You don't pay 2nd line centers 1st tier center money. And the 2011-12 cap hits for those guys are $5.325M, $6.1M, $6.3M and $6.7M, respectively.

Again, doesn't mean he didn't "deserve" the contract he just got. He did. And it also doesn't mean he wouldn't have gotten the same (or more?) on the open market as a UFA next summer. He might have. But, don't forget, you generally pay a premium for players in the UFA market (see: Johnsson, Kim, Wild fans. Or Boogaard, Derek....wait, that was just typical Ranger largesse, my bad.) However, since the Wild needs Mikko more than Mikko needs the Wild, that forces Fletch's hand into paying "market price" for Mikko.

I'm not saying Mikko should have given the Wild a "hometown" discount. Not at all. Like I said, I think Mikko got what he deserved. I guess what I'm saying is what he deserved in Minnesota ended up being arguably more than he would have deserved from another team. Again, the math being that, with the UFA premium, if he got $6.75M in Minny he would have gotten MORE than that on the open market. So, if the theory is he was worth $6.75M on the open market, then, backing out the UFA premium, he's got to be worth less in Minnesota.

So, tautologically, we're back to Mikko being worth more to the Wild than, arguably, any other team in the league right now, today. And, from Mikko's perspective, that's called leverage. And, from Mikko's agent's perspective, that means Mikko getting paid more than he's arguably worth. And that's Mikko's agent's job. And it's Chuck Fletcher's prerogative (and Craig Leipold's money.)

And I'm still not saying the Wild got a raw deal, or Chuck got bent over or anything like that.

And here's why: because Fletch obviously convinced Mikko that the future for the Wild was better than 13th-place overall. That, if nothing else, is what makes me happy and hopeful as a Wild fan.


Friday, July 2, 2010

Work to be done


As I discussed a couple days ago, I was very thrilled with the prospects of free agency beginning. My faith in Penguins GM Ray Shero was rewarded when he landed two of the consensus top five free agent defensemen, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.

Shero identified defense as Pittsburgh's biggest weakness - justified by the Penguins having the fifth-most goals scored in the league last season but ranking only 20th in goals against, and that despite having subpar seasons from Evgeni Malkin and a power play that featured Malkin, Sidney Crosby and the now-departed Sergei Gonchar. So he was quite comfortable with - and even planned on - spending upwards of $9 million annually to nab some marquee blue liners.

That cash hoped to be spent on retaining Gonchar and bringing in Dan Hamhuis, but those efforts quickly went by the wayside. Instead, Shero moved even faster to ink first Michalek for five years and $20 million and then Martin, also for five years but at $25 million.

So, naturally, I'm pumped. Just like I was on the evening of June 30. (Ahem.)

However, before excitement gets too high, it's time to analyze the team that at this point, will look somewhat different than the one that blew a 3-2 series lead to Montreal.

With the newcomers, the defense seems solid. However, the Penguins now have four defensemen making at least $3.5 million annually (Martin, Michalek, Brooks Orpik at 3.75 and Kris Letang at 3.5), so they're going to need to find the next Niklas Hjalmarsson, a cheap but effective youngster to fill out the other half of the bottom pairing. Alex Goligoski is the fifth D-man. Last year, Pittsburgh had just two blue liners (Gonchar at a cap hit of $5M and Orpik) making that much.

The hope is that Ben Lovejoy, signed for a very cap-friendly $525,000 each of the next three seasons, becomes that player. In very limited time, Lovejoy has shown composure and ability not expected of an NHL rookie. Deryk Engelland also showed signs of being an effective defenseman and could end up being seventh on the depth chart. He's slated to make $500,000 on a two-way contract for next season.

Lovejoy brings more of an all-around game while Engelland is a gritty, physical type the Penguins often lack.

Casualties of the Martin and Michalek signings include Jordan Leopold (already signed in Buffalo for $9 million over three years) and likely Mark Eaton, who made $2 million each of the last two seasons. Eaton is still a capable, reliable stay-at-home defenseman, but to stay in Pittsburgh he would have to take a massive pay cut. I don't see him doing that, nor do I think it's likely Shero brings in another aged veteran along the lines of Jay McKee, who signed for $800,000 last season. Doesn't mean it won't happen though.

In any case, that's the status of Pittsburgh's new, and hopefully improved, defense. There are no issues in goal. Marc-Andre Fleury is the starter and Brent Johnson is a very affordable and capable backup. Now to forwards, and, well...

Most of the forwards remain the same. Gone will be Ruslan Fedotenko and probably Alexei Ponikarovsky, a bust. The lack of league-wide interest in Ponikarovsky opens the door a crack for a return but he'd have to take a one- or two-year deal for less than the $2.5 million he made a year ago. He's likely headed for a third address.

Bill Guerin is in limbo. In November he turns 40 but wants to play another season. He wants to be in Pittsburgh, but Shero wants him to take a paycut. As of this writing, Guerin hasn't made a decision. He does have at least one other suitor.

With Guerin, there remains one glaring hole. Without him, there are two. The Penguins still lack a stable of top-six wingers, but the splurging on Martin and Michalek doesn't leave much room to fix that. Eric Tangradi possibly fills one of those voids. If he's on the NHL roster, Shero has about $2.2 million of cap space. Tangradi makes roughly $850,000 and will be given every chance in training camp to make the NHL team.

Since Shero likes to leave room for injuries and trade-deadline potential, he's not going to blow that $2.2M on one player. But there's not much out there for a cheap price. Shero hopes to sell a veteran on the chance of playing in Pittsburgh, maybe win a championship and/or maybe earn a big contract next season. There are quite a lot of names out there, but it's a question - sometimes a big question - who would want to sign for a tiny contract.

For instance, Paul Kariya is a name sometimes mentioned. He made $6 million last season. He's 35 but still scored 18 goals with 25 assists. Alexander Frolov has been a favorite target among fans but he'll cash in somewhere else. Maxim Afinogenov, Teemu Selanne or Lee Stempniak just to name a few others are available, but some might want many dollars while Selanne might prefer to stay in Anaheim, especially now that buddy Saku Koivu re-signed.

Christopher Higgins has become a popular target. He hauled in over $2 million last season but struggled mightily with the Rangers and Flames to the tune of a whopping eight goals. That would bring his price down, but the potential and history of three 20-goal seasons will bump it back up. I wouldn't expect to see him in black and gold. In fact, as I was composing this, Kevin Allen Tweeted that he's hearing Higgins will sign in Florida for one season at $1.6 million.

To which I say, dammit. That contract could've fit in nicely if he regained his scoring touch.

To sum up, there's no telling who will have "W" as his position in a Penguins uniform next season. Shero has worked some magic tricks in the past (as recently as, oh, yesterday) so we'll see if he can do it again to bring in some additional offensive talent. He'll need to as well; while the Penguins scored a lot of goals, it would really help if there's another threat on the team besides Crosby and Malkin.

It's July 2, so far too early to finalize Pittsburgh's roster. While parts of it appear to be improved compared to the 2009-10 one, there still remain holes with no clear-cut, easy or guaranteed solutions. So even though things might be looking good on paper right now, we'll hold off on those parade plans.

At least until Shero signs Ilya Kovalchuk to a 40-year, $90-million contract that carries a cap hit of $2.25 million per year. Heavily front-loaded, I might add.

Fletch Finally Gets His Man

Fletch's year-long crusade for a viable 2nd line center has, finally, borne fruit. Or so he says. With the addition of Matt Cullen (a son of the Land of Sky Blue Waters returning "home" from the front, as it were) Fletch would have us believe he got his man. I sure hope he's right.

It was a long, arduous, probably frustrating year for Fletch. And it wasn't for lack of trying, obviously. But Fletch was not able to fill the role via trade, which means three things. First, that he had to take on net additional cap hit to fill the role. Second, that he had to pay the Free Agent Premium (3 years, $3.5M per). Third, that Cullen better work out for Fletch and the Wild.

I would say the Wild and its fans have done well by Fletch so far. I think Latendresse is a clear win, Zanon too, and the mere fact that he has been willing to make moves is a dramatic improvement over his predecessor. And I'm optimistic that Cullen will work out for the Wild. He certainly seems like a character guy, good hustle, good "compete", etc. All things the Wild seem to both lack - in this fan's eyes - and covet (judging by Fletch's own words.)

But, for all the Wild fans out there patting themselves on the back for getting a Minnesotan on the team, they may wish to reconcile their excitement against the feelings of other Wild fans who decried the last GM for his free agency forays that landed the likes of Kim Johnsson.

What will be very interesting to me is how the addition of a 2nd line center, at big dollars and a kid from Minny to boot, will change expectations from some of my fellow State of Hockeyers for the Wild this coming season.

Because, to me, the Wild with Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom, and less Boogaard, Nolan, Hnidy, Earl and Ebbett, is only marginally better than the 13th place-team from last season. Doubtless the desire will be to put higher expectations on them. And to the extent some of that will come simply from excitement, there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But Nystrom and Cullen do not make Bouchard's head better. And the little guy is the most gifted offensive player of that particular trio.

Now, man-for-man, I think there's some improvement. Boogaard needed to move on for the Wild to start getting better. Not that he was holding them back, but he was a big, huge door opener for the last couple seasons. And the team's skill level was falling behind at an alarming rate. So, Nystrom for Boogaard is an upgrade in every dimension but fisticuffs - but Boogaard was having trouble even getting other guys to drop with him by the end of his reign in St. Paul.

So, the Wild is marginally better today than it was yesterday. Some of that is addition by subtraction. Some of that is addition by addition. But this is not an upper echelon roster at this point. And, though the rhetoric about "look at what 8th seeds did this year" is tantalizing and intoxicating, there's also the theory of reversion to the mean.

Keep it real, Wild fans.