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Ilya Kovalchuk was the most coveted free agent of the 2010 summer crop. ((Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) )

The NHLPA is digging in.

The Players' Association on Monday filed a grievance on behalf of Ilya Kovalchuk against the NHL, which rejected the star winger's record 17-year, $102-million US contract with the New Jersey Devils last week.

"Under the terms of the [collective bargaining agreement], the NHLPA and Mr. Kovalchuk are entitled to an expedited resolution of this matter. The NHLPA will have no further comment until this matter has been resolved by an arbitrator," the Players' Association said in a release.

The case will now go to independent arbitration, potentially stretching the process further into the summer, as both sides have to agree on the arbitrator before the case proceeds. After the selection is made, the arbitrator has 48 hours to render a decision.

"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," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement. "The league looks forward to the opportunity to establish its position before the arbitrator."

Kovalchuk signed what would have been the largest contract in NHL history on July 19 with New Jersey, but one day later reports surfaced that the league was going to reject the deal.

That was confirmed last Wednesday when the league said, without elaborating, the contract circumvented the collective bargaining agreement.

Most reports suggested that the NHL nixed the deal because it deliberately evades the salary cap. Kovalchuk, 27, was slated to make $95 million over the first 10 years of the contract, and a relatively paltry $7 million over the final seven seasons.

This structure lowered the cap hit to $6 million for New Jersey over the course of the contract. Many expect Kovalchuk, who will be in his 40s in the latter years of the deal, won't even play the final third of his term, opting instead to retire or head to the KHL in Russia.

Kovalchuk was the most coveted free agent of the 2010 summer crop. He landed with the Devils in February after he was traded there from Atlanta, and impressed New Jersey by potting 10 goals and 17 assists in the final 27 games of the regular season, and two goals with four assists in five playoff games.

He rejected two offers from Atlanta — a seven-year deal worth $70 million and a 12-year, $101-million offer.

If it stands, his new contract will exceed the 15-year deal New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro signed in 2006.