Arbitrator rejects Kovalchuk's deal with the Devils

TORONTO (Reuters) - The battle for Ilya Kovalchuk's services is back on after an arbitrator ruled in favor of the NHL on Monday and rejected the Russian sniper's landmark deal with the New Jersey Devils.

Kovalchuk was courted by several teams during the offseason but ultimately agreed to a landmark 17-year $102 million deal with the New Jersey Devils in mid-July.

The NHL had argued that the 27-year-old Russian's heavily front-loaded contract, which would have seen him bank a huge percentage of the money over the first 10 years of the deal, was a blatant attempt to circumvent the league's salary cap.

Monday's ruling means Kovalchuk is a free agent for the second time this year and able to sign with any team.

"We want to thank arbitrator (Richard) Bloch for his prompt resolution of a complex issue," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement.

"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."

The high-scoring winger, who would have been 44 when the contract expired, was scheduled to earn $95 million over the first 10 years of the deal and $7 million over the last seven, significantly reducing the salary cap hit to the Devils.

The NHL's decision to reject the deal prompted the NHL Players' Association to file a grievance and send the matter to arbitration.

The NHLPA said in a statement they are disappointed with the ruling to uphold the NHL's rejection of the contract and are still reviewing the decision.

Long-term contracts structured to ease the impact on a team's salary cap have set off alarm bells at NHL offices.

Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Philadelphia's Chris Pronger, Chicago's Marian Hossa and Vancouver's Robert Luongo are among prominent players who have all signed similar deals.

Kovalchuk's 17-year contract, however, was the longest ever signed by an NHL player, surpassing the 15-year $67.5 million contract awarded to New York Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro and Ovechkin's 13-year $124 million deal.

The Devils said they respect the arbitrator's ruling and will still try to get Kovalchuk signed to a contract.

"While we do not currently have a contract with Ilya Kovalchuk, discussions have resumed and we are hopeful that a contract will be reached that meets with the principles in Arbitrator Bloch's award and the NHL's approval," Devils President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello said in a statement.

(Writing by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)