Daily Buzz: Devil’s in the details

There were many words written last week about Dwight Howard “leaving $30 million on the table” when he decided to sign with the Houston Rockets over the Los Angeles Lakers — even though that wasn’t really accurate at all — and how Howard is a disloyal, overrated, pidgeon-hearted baby for moving on to a third team in as many seasons.

Now, the number du jour is $77 million, as in the guaranteed money New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk is "giving up" by "retiring" at the age of 30, with 12 years left on his contract — a claim that’s even more farcical than the idea that Howard lost anything by leaving LA for Texas.

In ditching the NHL, Kovalchuk abused the Devils franchise far more than Howard cheated the Lakers or Orlando Magic out of anything. He abandoned a team that defied the league to get him a record contract, and in doing so, left them ill-equipped to compete for some time to come. And now his reward will be an even more lucrative deal in his native Russia.

Kovalchuk will reportedly sign with SKA St. Petersburg on Friday, a deal that could net him between $15-20 million per season, according to one Russian site. (And if that seems unrealistic, consider that another Russian club, CSKA, signed Alexander Radulov — a much dimmer star than Kovalchuk — for a reported $9.2 million last summer.)

But Kovalchuk’s true crime doesn’t have to do with money, or the misleading suggestion that he’s losing any by leaving the NHL. The man had an opportunity to get paid in a place where he felt more comfortable playing, and it’s hard to blame him for taking it. The shame lies in what he did to a Devils team that essentially invested its future into the idea that it could build around him.

In February 2010, the Devils gave up three players and a first-round draft pick to rent Kovalchuk, who, at the time, was in the final year of his contract with the Atlanta Thrashers. The following summer, New Jersey signed Kovalchuk to a massive 15-year, $100 million deal.

That contract eventually cost the team another first-round pick after the league penalized the Devils for salary cap circumvention (the original deal was 17 years, $102 million, with Kovalchuk making $550,000 a year in the final five years, an indecent proposal to be sure). New Jersey had four years to forfeit that pick, and the Devils haven’t done it yet, so they’ll lose it in next year’s draft — another roadblock for a team that’s suddenly, and unexpectedly rebuilding.

Investing so much into Kovalchuk’s contract also impacted the Devils’ plans for retaining their own free agents and bringing other stars in. In making Kovalchuk the team’s franchise player, New Jersey essentially spent itself out of the Zach Parise sweepstakes (he got 13 years and $98 million from Minnesota last summer), lost David Clarkson (he got seven years and $36.75 million from Toronto this offseason) and priced itself out of several other players on the market.

So now a team that has made the playoffs in 21 of 25 seasons since Lou Lamoriello became general manager and was just two wins from a Stanley Cup a year ago is fledgling.

The Devils mortgaged their future on Kovalchuk — giving up veteran talent, valuable future prospects and lots and lots of money to keep him — and Kovalchuk left them on the edge of collapse, where nothing short of a Lamoriello miracle will save them. And then there’s the untold impact Kovalchuk’s move will have on other Russian players, who may find lucrative NHL contracts harder to come by due to fear from GMs that they might be the next to “pull a Kovy.”

Kovalchuk put himself before his team, his league and his countrymen because he wanted to go home. But please, tell me again how Howard is sports’ biggest coward.

Now for some links:

• Also not a fan of Kovalchuk’s "retirement"? Jeremy Roenick:






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