Thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk, we now ask ourselves whether or not long-term, front-loaded contracts are bad for the league and my immediate answer is no.
Long-term contracts like these are good for the NHL, because it keeps the league's best players in the league guaranteed for much longer, the player gets his market value at the time and the team works it's way under the salary cap in a fashion that has not yet upset the league or its officials publicly, therefore I see no problem with these deals.
If teams are willing to commit to deals like these, paying players a lot of money, I don't see how this is really going to change the game. As the years draw on, I don't think we are going to see many reductions in ticket prices, concession costs or beer charges; I believe all of those things are inevitable either every year or every other year, regardless of a team's budget or winning percentage.
In the salary cap era, there are still so many teams dealing with the salary cap ceiling with these long-term contracts on the books and teams are only fitting in depth players because of these deals. The gain for many of these teams who are signing deals is that they are still able to sign three, four or five players at the league minimum to help out their rosters. I don't think there are many deals built to fit in another superstar under the cap, unless these stars have decided to take less money for longer, which really isn't considered being front-loaded in a lot of cases.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Duncan Keith, Roberto Luongo, Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, Rick DiPietro, Nicklas Backstrom, Vincent Lecavalier, Mike Richards and Johan Franzen all have deals with 10 or more full seasons left to be acknowledged and by star value, I can only see a couple of names that could be mistakes (DiPietro and Franzen). So, it really isn't like any Tom, Dick or Harry is signing these deals, making life easier for any team or for any manager, it's only those managers that have decided that these guys are "franchise players" and should be part of said franchise for a long time to come... or until their no-trade clause can be lifted and/or disappears.
If the KHL threat is actually real and the NHL doesn't want to actually lose some of their best players, these could be the kind of deals that need to be given that doesn't allow for such players to disappear too quickly. Sure, Keith, Luongo, DiPietro, Lecavalier and Richards are all North American and are all less of a flight-risk, but can the NHL really bank on that? Maybe not. For Kovalchuk, Ovechkin and other Europeans, they could be considered a flight risk on free agency, except for Evgeni Nabokov, whose reputation has been hurt by a few too many playoff disappointments and couldn't garner a deal. I don't think anyone was too disappointed when he went back home for the money and to finish his career at home.
In the Devils' case with Kovalchuk, they have themselves a player that has proven that he is a natural goal scorer, one of the best in recent memory, for a long time to come and at a cost that looks pretty good, if he can score 50 or more goals in only a few of the next 10 years. Of course, they have to assume that his skills will diminish around the end of those 10 years and it will only be his hockey smarts and willingness to play more defense that will keep him playing at age 37 or longer. Of course, the Devils are well within their rights to trade Kovalchuk away at that time or even lend a helping push to try and get him to retire, eliminating that cap hit from the books entirely and legally. Since when is it illegal to retire?
In all honesty, if I was a GM of an NHL team, I might consider looking at these deals as a solution to a firepower issue, but the counterargument being that you will be stuck (unless some other team wants to get stuck with him via trade, assuming NTCs or NMCs don't come into question) for a very long time. Players want security and teams want legal flexibility and until one team goes terribly overboard with a long-term deal, I don't think we'll see the end of these. With only 11 contracts over 10 years remaining today, we're not over run with these huge deals, they just get a lot of press, because they are still taboo to some fragile minds.