NHL wins contract grievance case against Ilya Kovalchuk; Kovalchuk a free agent once again

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for kovalchuklouvanderbeek.jpgIn a stunning turn of events today, systems arbitrator Richard Bloch has handed down a stunning decision today, rejecting the NHLPA grievance against the NHL over Ilya Kovalchuk’s 17-year, $102 million contract making Kovalchuk an unrestricted free agent once again.

In an unprecedented situation, the NHL has won the day and the question that hangs in the air here is: What sense does it make? Numerous other contracts have been crafted the same way as Kovalchuk’s contract with the Devils was yet his is the deal that gets bounced by the league. Picking when to start a fight and decide what’s good and what isn’t is the remarkable part of all this and the NHL may have picked a case where they stood to win in an easier battle than with other contracts. After all, the final four years of the now nullified deal with the Devils was set to earn Kovalchuk the league minimum all in an effort to drive his cap hit down. From a common sense perspective it looks like a clear means to get around the rules of business.

The problem here with common sense is that the law of the land in the NHL has deviated away from that previous to this one contract. Other deals see the money fall off the table towards the end of a contract in an effort to get the cap number reduced but those deals were approved by the league. What made this contract different? You have to suspect that the number of years in order to make it happen are a leading cause as there’s no other contract in the NHL as long as 17 years. Sure, there’s Rick DiPietro’s 15-year contract with the Islanders but at no point does the money disappear on it. That contract, by the books, is a straight-forward deal.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly issued a statement on the proceedings today:

“We want to thank Arbitrator Bloch for his prompt resolution of a complex issue. His ruling is consistent with the League’s view of the manner in which the Collective Bargaining Agreement should deal with contracts that circumvent the Salary Cap.”

What’s next for the once-again-free-agent Ilya Kovalchuk is that he’ll most likely try to work out a new contract with the Devils that better fits the confines of the structure of previous deals that were completed and approved by the league previously. Whether this means Kovalchuk ends up taking less money or years or both remains to be seen. Using Marian Hossa’s contract with the Blackhawks would be a good starting point to reconstruct a deal. While Hossa’s deal stretched the CBA to the limits, it was still approved.

garybettman2.jpgIt’s also possible that the highly questionable years in Kovalchuk’s deal could be lopped off, thus making his cap hit a lot harder to take for the Devils. There’s also the possibility of tweaking the money so Kovalchuk isn’t making nearly the league minimum in the last four years of the deal. After all, Kovalchuk says he’s going to play that long and the Devils are willing to pay him for that long, putting your money where your mouth is is a good way to back that up.

Since he’s a free agent once again, it’s possible that the Los Angeles Kings could re-enter the bidding process given that their contract offer for the Russian superstar was something a bit more within the confines of what’s allowable in the NHL. Given the future labor ramifications this result in the hearing might have, it’s also possible that Kovalchuk just aims for a short-term deal with any team that might want to make a run for him knowing full-well that the NHLPA and the owners are going to be in for a labor blood war in 2012.

As for the Devils, there’s a possibility that they could be fined by the NHL or docked draft picks for circumventing the salary cap. Fines range up to as much as $5 million dollars and could be used against the salary cap itself so as to more effectively punish the team.

We’ll have more analysis on top of this as the night and the days progress, rest assured this is just the start of what figures to be a long and very ugly future as the league and the players union are concerned. For Ilya Kovalchuk, it’s back to square one as far as finding a new team to play for is concerned.

The Golden Knights keep getting better, more powerful

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Here is a sentence that would have been laughable to even suggest back in October: If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night they will move into sole possession for first place in the entire NHL.

At this point the Golden Knights, the NHL’s latest expansion team, are no longer just a fun story: They are a contender, a legitimate one, and they only keep getting stronger as the season progresses. There is a pretty convincing argument to be made that they actually are the best team in hockey at the moment.

Entering play on Sunday Vegas is on a 15-3-3 run since Dec. 1.

What is even more impressive than the record itself is the way they are starting to dominate games.

When Vegas found its initial success it was easy to kind of downplay it as a team that was simply riding a wave of hot goaltending that would, inevitably, regress. Whenever that regression happened the expectation was that they would start to play like a regular expansion team and start losing.

For a while, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that was going to be the case.

In that first month Vegas was losing the shot bottle, it was losing the possession battle, and with Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined it was relying on a patchwork group of goaltenders to somehow steal games.

But take a look at what has happened in each month since looking at their Corsi percentage (shot attempts at even-strength) and PDO (even-strength shooting percentage plus even-strength save percentage).

The slow start is understandable. It was a new team with what was thought to be an undermanned roster that had never played together.  Since then they have steadily gone from being one of the worst possession teams in the league in the first month that got by on what was mostly percentage driven good fortune, to a team that has been, at least in January, the absolute best possession team in the league.

If you look at December and January together (the aforementioned 15-3-3 stretch) the Golden Knights are the the seventh-best possession team. They have only been outshot five times in those 21 games, and only three of those teams outshot them by more than five.

[Related: Revisiting the trades that built one of the NHL’s best lines in Vegas]

By comparison, Vegas has outshot nine teams by at least five, including seven by at least 10 shots during that same stretch.

There is still an element of some percentage driven luck here, especially when it comes to the goaltending. Fleury is not going to maintain a .945 save percentage for the rest of the season, and William Karlsson still can not miss when the puck is on his stick. He may have deserved more of a look in his previous stops in Anaheim and Columbus, but he is also not a 26 percent shooter every season.

But the fact the Golden Knights are starting to drive possession and control the overwhelming majority of the shot attempts is not only incredibly impressive, it is extremely encouraging for their outlook for the remainder of the season.

They are not just getting the results at the moment, the process driving the results is sound as well.

From the very beginning absolutely everything has clicked for them. The goaltending has been sensational, their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith has found immediate chemistry, and they are playing a fast, aggressive style of hockey that is starting to overwhelm teams.

Even if Vegas played the remainder of the season at the level of a normal expansion team (let’s say a .400 points percentage) they would still finish with 94 points on the season. There is nothing to suggest they will play at that level. Instead, if they keep playing the way they have been for the better part of the past two months they are going to be giving Tampa Bay, Boston, and Nashville a run for the Presidents’ Trophy. In their very first season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz

Team USA general manager Jim Johannson dies at age 53

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Sad news from USA hockey on Sunday morning as the organization announced that Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director or USA Hockey and the general manager of the 2018 men’s Olympic hockey team, has died at the age of 53.

According to the announcement, Johannson passed away in his sleep early Sunday morning at his home in Colorado Springs.

“We are beyond shocked and profoundly saddened,” Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey, said in a statement released by the organization.

“As accomplished as Jim was in hockey, he was the absolute best, most humble, kind and caring person you could ever hope to meet. His impact on our sport and more importantly the people and players in our sport have been immeasurable. Our condolences go out to his entire family, but especially to his loving wife Abby and their young daughter Ellie.”

“In building the teams that achieved so much success for USA Hockey, Jim Johannson had a sharp eye for talent, a strong sense of chemistry and a relentless pursuit of excellence,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement. “The NHL family’s respect for Jim’s contributions to hockey, at all levels, is exceeded only by our shock and sorrow over his sudden passing. We send strength, comfort and condolences to Jim’s wife, Abby, his daughter, Ellie, and his many friends in our sport. As we mourn his loss, we will remember the positive outlook Jim brought to his tireless efforts to advance USA Hockey.”

He had been with USA Hockey since 2000. During his time Team USA won 64 medals (34 gold) at various international tournaments.

He helped assemble the 2018 men’s team which will be using non-NHL players for the first time since the 1994 games.

Johannson played hockey at the collegiate level for the University of Wisconsin and was a seventh-round draft pick by the Hartford Whalers in 1982. He never made it to the NHL but had a successful career in the International Hockey League playing for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, Indianapolis Ice, and Milwaukee Admirals.

Along with being one of the top executives for USA hockey for years, Johannson also represented Team USA on the ice as a player during the 1988 games in Calgary and the 1992 games in Albertville.

He scored two goals for Team USA in Olympic competition.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Philadelphia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Michael RafflValtteri Filppula – Jake Voracek

Jordan WealNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott Laughton – Tyrell Goulbourne

Defense

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Robert Hägg – Andrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Brian Elliott

[NHL ON NBC: FLYERS LOOK TO STAY HOT AGAINST CAPITALS]

Washington Capitls

Forwards

Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson

Andrei Burakovsky – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie

Chandler StephensonLars EllerBrett Connolly

Devante Smith-PellyJay BeagleAlex Chiasson

Defense

Christian DjoosJohn Carlson

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Brooks OrpikMadison Bowey

Starting Goalie: Braden Holtby

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL On NBC: Flyers Look to stay hot against Capitals

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Before the city of Philadelphia loses its collective minds on Sunday evening for the NFC Championship game, the local hockey team — which is playing extremely well again! — will be back on the ice when it visits the Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon for a 12:30 p.m. ET puck drop. You can watch it live on NBC or on our NBC Sports Live Stream

The Flyers have been one of the most maddeningly inconsistent teams in the league this season going back and forth between extended winning streaks and lengthy cold streaks. At the moment, they are back on one of the hot streaks.

After defeating the New Jersey Devils on Saturday afternoon the Flyers have now won six of their past seven and seven of their past nine and enter Sunday’s game just one point behind the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, while having games in hand on both teams (one on the Rangers entering Sunday; still three on the Penguins). A win against the Capitals could jump them over both teams and put them just one point back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

The Flyers are led by the trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, all of whom are among the NHL’s top-2o scorers this season. Giroux is currently fourth in the league in total points, while Voracek has four most assists than any other player in the league. Couturier, going through a massive breakout season offensively, has been one of the best two-way centers in the league and has to be one of the front-runners for the Selke Trophy at the halfway point of the season.

The Capitals, meanwhile, are not quite as dominant as they were the past two seasons when they won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, but they are still among the top teams in the league. They have lost two in a row and three out of their past four heading into Sunday afternoon’s game against the Flyers, but are coming in with a couple of days rest while they get a Flyers team that just played 24 hours ago. So they are catching a little bit of a break from the schedule.

Alex Ovechkin is once again the driving force behind the Capitals’ offense and enters Sunday as the league’s leading goal-scorer with 28. He is flirting with what could be another 50-goal season.

There is going to be plenty of star power on the ice on Sunday afternoon with five of the league’s top-35 scorers (Giroux, Voracek, Ovechkin, Couturier, Evgeny Kuznetsov), the top goal-scorer (Ovechkin), and two of the top-five scoring defensemen (John Carlson, Shayne Gostisbehere).

Do not miss it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.