One of the most prolific free-agent battles in NHL history became a tad more interesting with news that Ilya Kovalchuk will be attending his own contract hearing in Boston on Wednesday and Thursday.
There's a chance Kovalchuk and his agent, Jay Grossman, could be called to testify at the hearing, which will be handled by Richard Bloch, a labor arbitrator with plenty of experience in high-profile contract disputes.
Of course, Kovalchuk's mere presence probably doesn't mean much at this stage other than that he would really like to reinforce his willingness to make $102 million playing for the New Jersey Devils until 2027.
The main issue revolves around whether players and teams should be allowed to take advantage of a loophole in the current collective bargaining agreement even though the NHL warned there would be dire consequences for any team that signed a player to a stretched-out mega deal.
Bloch could very well side with Kovalchuk since players such as Henrik Zetterberg and Chris Pronger got away with it. Or he'll simply scoff at the idea of a 44-year-old playing professional hockey and tell him to find some Russian oil tycoon to pay him $100 million to play in the KHL.
Still, if Bloch sides with the Devils and Kovalchuk, there could be some significant consequences.
First, there could be a rush to sign high-profile free agents to Kovalchuk-like contracts before a new collective bargaining agreement is ratified (the CBA expires in September 2012). That means top free agents such as Kings defenseman Drew Doughty could find a lot more takers if general managers know they can stretch out his contract over 15 or 20 years.
The NHL also would fight hard to have this loophole filled in the next CBA. Under a worst-case scenario, this could lead to another lockout -- and Commissioner Gary Bettman is on a mission to make sure these contracts will be banned in the next agreement.
Either way, this needs to get handled as quickly as possible. There are teams out there (well, on this continent, maybe just the Kings) who are willing to pay decent money for Kovalchuk as long as he starts wishing for a Stanley Cup instead of a nine-figure salary.
-- Austin Knoblauch
Photo: Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk poses outside the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., after signing a 17-year deal with the Devils on July 20, 2010. Credit: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images