Arbiter: NHL was right in voiding Kovalchuk deal

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Ilya Kovalchuk is back on the free-agent market, and talking already. An arbitrator ruled Monday that the NHL acted correctly in voiding Kovalchuk’s landmark $102 million contract with the Devils.

The league had rejected the 17-year contract, saying the longest deal in league history violated its salary cap.

The NHL Players Association filed a grievance against the league. A hearing was held last week and arbiter Richard Bloch sided with the league when he issued his ruling.

“We want to thank arbitrator 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 decision put Kovalchuk back on the market as an unrestricted free agent, and the high-scoring Russian already was talking to the Devils again.

“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,” New Jersey president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said.

Kovalchuk was hockey’s biggest prize in free agency this year with 338 goals and 304 assists in 642 career games. He thought he had a lucrative deal with the Devils, but now he has to work out a new one.

Lamoriello noted Bloch’s ruling indicated neither the team nor Kovalchuk operated in bad faith and both parties believed the contract was compliant with the collective bargaining agreement.

NHL spokesman Frank Brown said it was too early to say whether the league would take punitive action against the Devils. New Jersey can be fined or lose draft picks for signing Kovalchuk to a contract that circumvented league rules.

The players’ association said it was disappointed with the ruling, which it was reviewing. It had no further comment.

Kovalchuk and the Devils agreed to the deal July 19. The next day, the league determined the contract was illegal because years of low salary at the end lowered the cap hit.

The union filed a grievance July 26.

The All-Star was slated to earn only $550,000 in each of the last five seasons of the rejected deal. It would have run through the 2026-27 season, when Kovalchuk will be 44.

Kovalchuk had 41 goals and 44 assists last season, when he was traded to the Devils by Atlanta in February. The 27-year-old left wing is the league’s leading goal scorer since 2001.

The Los Angeles Kings, New York Islanders, Devils and SKA St. Petersburg of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League talked with Kovalchuk after free agency started July 1. The final decision came down to the Kings and New Jersey.

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