Ilya Kovalchuk will be all smiles should an arbitrator rule in favour of his 17-year, $102-million US contract with the New Jersey Devils. ((Mel Evans/Associated Press))

Ilya Kovalchuk soon could be a free man again.

Free, as in an unrestricted free agent, should an independent arbitrator rule in the National Hockey League's favour after it rejected the 17-year contract Kovalchuk signed with the New Jersey Devils on July 19.

Richard Bloch, a 67-year-old New Jersey native who is said to have served as an arbitrator and mediator in cases involving the NHL, Major League Baseball and the National Football League, will rule on the Kovalchuk hearing, which began last week.

A decision is expected sometime Monday.

Should the arbitrator side with Kovalchuk and the NHL Players' Association, which filed a grievance July 30 that disputes the league's rejection, the NHL must immediately approve the contract.

The league contends the deal, which would pay the 27-year-old Russian $102 million US, circumvents the league's collective bargaining agreement. If the arbitrator rules that way, Kovalchuk would be deemed a UFA.

The deal in question would pay Kovalchuk $95 million in the first 10 years of the contract and $7 million in the last seven seasons, including the NHL minimum $550,000 over the final five years for a salary cap-friendly hit of $6 million annually.

He would be 44 when the deal is set to expire.

The Russian star made $7.5 million US last season and spurned a pair of offers from Atlanta — a seven-year deal worth $70 million US and a $101-million pact over 12 seasons — hoping to land a long-term contract worth $11 million annually.

King Kovalchuk?

Kovalchuk's deal with the Devils put to rest rumours the left-winger would sign with the Los Angeles Kings or with the Continental Hockey League (KHL) in his native Russia.

The Kings, who reportedly made several attempts to sign Kovalchuk once he hit the open market on July 1, could get another chance.

Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, refused to say his client decided to stay in New Jersey because he felt the Devils had a better chance to win the Stanley Cup.

Kovalchuk scored 41 goals and 85 points last season, split between the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey.

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello acquired the flashy forward on Feb. 4 along with defenceman Anssi Salmela for blue-liner Johnny Oduya, forward Niclas Bergfors, junior prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft pick.

Kovalchuk scored 10 goals and 27 points in 27 regular-season games for New Jersey, but couldn't help the team out of the first round of the playoffs, finishing with six points in five contests against Philadelphia. He has only been to the playoffs twice, winning only one game.

A perennial all-star and two-time 50-goal scorer, Kovalchuk has scored 40 or more goals in each of the last six seasons.

In eight NHL campaigns, the 2001 first overall pick has scored 338 career goals, including 117 on the power play, and 642 points in 621 regular-season games.