TORONTO - The NHL Players' Association filed a grievance Monday that disputes the league's rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk's US$102 million, 17-year contract with the New Jersey Devils.
An independent arbitrator will be named to settle the battle over a contract the NHL felt violated the spirit of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players. Kovalchuk cannot play until the case is resolved.
"Under the terms of the CBA, the NHLPA and Mr. Kovalchuk are entitled to an expedited resolution of this matter," the NHLPA said in a statement.
It added the union would have no further comment "until this matter has been resolved by an arbitrator."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who called the longest deal in league history a "circumvention of the CBA" in rejecting the landmark contract last week, said they were ready to face the arbitrator.
"Although there is no defined timetable at this point, we intend to work with the players' association to ensure an expeditious resolution of this dispute," Daly said in a statement. "The league looks forward to the opportunity to establish its position before the arbitrator."
The league felt the Devils went too far in giving the 27-year-old Russian a contract that would pay $95 million over the first 10 years, but only $7 million over the final seven. That would reduce the cost against the salary cap to a relatively modest $6 million per year.
The final five years would pay only $550,000 per season.
Questions were also raised over the duration. It would end when Kovalchuk is 44, well past retirement age for most players.
However, in recent seasons the league has not rejected similar "front-end-loaded" contracts in which the salary cap hit is diminished by adding extra years at relatively low pay.
Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo has a $63 million, 12-year deal that pays only $7 million over the final four seasons and takes him to age 43. Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks will be 42 at the end of his $62.8 million, 12-year contract that pays $3.5 million in the last four seasons.
Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings and Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers are among those with similar contracts. In length, the Kovalchuk deal tops New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro's 15 years and Washington Capital Alex Ovechkin's 13.
None is as long or tapers so sharply at the end as that signed by the flashy Kovalchuk, the biggest name on the free agent market this summer.
Kovalchuk's deal is slated to pay $6 million in each of the next two seasons, jump to $11.5 million for five seasons, and then drop to $10.5 million, $8.5 million, $6.5 million and $3.5 million for one year each before slowing to $750,000 for 2021-22 and then $550,00 through to 2027.
The high-scoring winger reportedly rejected a $101 million, 12-year contract offer from the Atlanta Thrashers before he was traded to New Jersey in February.
Kovalchuk was drafted first overall by the Thrashers in 2001 and has 338 goals and 304 assists in 642 career NHL games. Last season, he had 41 goals and 44 assists.
Tapered contracts arose after a salary cap was instituted following the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. Next season's cap is $59.4 million per team.