- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Ilya Kovalchuk is no closer to figuring out his future than he was when NHL free agency opened three weeks ago.

Kovalchuk’s landmark 17-year, $102 million contract with the New Jersey Devils was rejected by the NHL, which ruled that the longest deal in league history violated its salary cap.

Where the high-scoring forward _ the biggest prize on the free agent market _ will land now is anyone’s guess.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement Wednesday that the Devils, Kovalchuk and the players’ association still have several options if they choose to restructure the deal.

Until then, Daly said “the player is not entitled to play under the contract.”

The union has a few days to decide if it will file a grievance to try to have this contract approved; Kovalchuk and the Devils could return to the bargaining table to work out a new deal; or the All-Star forward could go back into free agency and find a new home in the NHL or in his native Russia with the rival KHL.

Red flags were raised even before the Devils held a news conference on Tuesday to formally announce what appeared to be Kovalchuk’s final NHL contract.

By tacking on years of low salary at the end of the deal when Kovalchuk would be well past his prime _ if he was even still playing _ the Devils lowered their salary-cap hit to $6 million per season.

The NHL wants to eliminate such “retirement contracts” and challenged this one after allowing others to stand.

Kovalchuk’s deal was likely rejected because he was slated to earn only $550,000 in each of the last five seasons of the contract that was to run through the 2026-27 season, when he would be 44. Kovalchuk was to earn $98.5 million in the first 11 years of the deal.

“We are extremely disappointed that the NHL has decided to reject the contract of Ilya Kovalchuk,” Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said in a statement. “The contract complies with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. We will have no further comment until the process outlined in the CBA is complete.”

Kovalchuk’s agent, Jay Grossman, also said Wednesday that he wouldn’t comment until the matter is resolved.

Before the deal was prohibited, Lamoriello believed it would meet NHL approval.

“There is nothing that we have done wrong,” he said Tuesday. “This is within the rules. This is in the CBA. There are precedents that have been set. But I would agree we shouldn’t have these. I’m also saying that because it’s legal and this is something that ownership felt comfortable doing for the right reasons.”

Based on provisions in the collective bargaining agreement between the players’ association and the league, the union has five business days to file a grievance on behalf of Kovalchuk. The deal would remain voided if no grievance is filed or if an arbitrator agrees that the contract is illegal.

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