NHL Free Agency 2013: Predictions for Top Salary Arbitration Cases
When restricted free agents are unable to reach a new contract with their NHL teams, those who are eligible often go to salary arbitration.
This is where a neutral third party hears the player's view of what his value is and how much he deserves to be paid and then compares that argument with his team's perspective. After hearing both sides, the independent arbiter makes a final decision on the player's salary for the upcoming season.
Most teams and players try to avoid this process by reaching a new contract before the scheduled hearing, because arbitration often damages the relationship between the two parties.
On Tuesday, the NHLPA released the full list of players who will have arbitration hearings from July 22 through August 2. Let's look at some predictions for the most notable cases involving the top RFAs of the summer.
Note: All salary information via CapGeek.
Zach Bogosian, Winnipeg Jets
Arbitration Date: August 2
2013 Production and Salary: 14 points in 33 games, $3,000,000
Dispute Breakdown: The Winnipeg Jets have three more arbitration hearings scheduled, and the most notable one involves top-four defenseman Zach Bogosian.
The former No. 3 overall pick hasn't lived up to his potential in four NHL seasons. Despite having an offensive skill set that includes impressive playmaking skills and a power shot from the point, he's never tallied more than 30 points in a season, and his defensive skills have not developed as expected.
In addition to his lackluster offensive production last season, Bogosian finished fourth among Jets defensemen with 50 blocked shots and fourth in hits (79).
Predicted Outcome: Bogosian will want a raise, but he doesn't deserve a salary above $4 million based on his performance in his four-year career. The 23-year-old needs to have a breakout season before he earns a long-term contract with an annual average salary comparable to the best young defensemen in the NHL.
A one-year deal worth $3.5 million would be fair for all parties.
Sam Gagner, Edmonton Oilers
Arbitration Date: July 22
2013 Production and Salary: 38 points in 48 games, $3.2 million
Dispute Breakdown: Sam Gagner is the highest-paid player who is scheduled for arbitration this summer after getting a $3.2 million salary from an independent arbiter last year.
The Edmonton Oilers center has become a reliable top-six forward and someone capable of tallying 60-70 points in a full 82-game season. He finished second on the Oilers in scoring last season and is the team's best playmaker at center.
It would be surprising if Gagner and the Oilers actually went to arbitration. He has the talent to be a No. 1 center, and based on his previous performance the 23-year-old deserves a salary between $4-5 million on a multi-year deal.
Edmonton would be wise to re-sign him long-term. Even if his cap hit is a little high right now, it won't be as substantial in a few years when the salary cap ceiling increases.
Predicted Outcome: A fair deal for Gagner would be something similar to the four-year, $17.2 million contract that Florida Panthers forward Kris Versteeg recently signed. If no long-term deal is reached, Gagner will be eligible for UFA status next summer.
Chris Stewart, St. Louis Blues
Arbitration Date: July 22
2013 Production and Salary: 36 points in 48 games, $3 million
Dispute Breakdown: Stewart led the Blues in goals and points last season and will want a raise above his $3 million salary from last season. His 36 points were six more than he tallied in 2011-12, despite playing in 31 less games.
Stewart is frustrating to watch at times because he's not consistent and goes through prolonged scoring droughts. With that said, he does have impressive goal-scoring ability and plays a power-forward style of hockey that makes him a perfect fit in head coach Ken Hitchcock's system.
Even if the Blues don't want to pay him $3.5-4 million per season, the team desperately need offense after finishing 17th in goals scored, and Stewart is its most productive forward.
Predicted Outcome: A one-year deal worth $3.5 million would give Stewart a raise and allow the Blues to see one more year of production before committing to him long-term. That would be a win-win for both sides.
Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
Arbitration Date: July 29
2013 Production and Salary: 41 points in 48 games, $2.65 million
Dispute Breakdown: Wheeler averaged a career-best 0.85 points per game last season and would be wise to use this opportunity to cash in. The 26-year-old winger finished second on the Jets in points and first in goals scored last season.
As a top-line player in Winnipeg who has the potential to score at a point-per-game rate in the near future as he enters his prime, Wheeler is now a $3.5-4 million player.
Winnipeg finished 15th in goals scored last year and had the worst power-play percentage in the league. This is why losing Wheeler (he's eligible for UFA status next summer) or damaging the team's relationship with him through arbitration is a bad idea. Agreeing on a multi-year extension is the best option for both parties.
Predicted Outcome: In an effort to avoid any hard feelings and ensure that an important top-six forward is signed long-term, expect Wheeler to get a multi-year contract from the Jets.
Bryan Little, Winnipeg Jets
Arbitration Date: July 24
2013 Production and Salary: 32 points in 48 games, $3 million
Dispute Breakdown: Little finished fourth on the Jets in scoring last season and ranked second in assists. He was the only center on the roster who tallied more than 18 points.
As the team's best playmaking center, Little has tremendous value to a Winnipeg team that lacks the necessary amount of depth and skill down the middle to earn a playoff berth. Little is capable of putting up 40-55 points in an 82-game season, and since he's only 25 years old, there is still plenty of room for improvement in his game.
With that said, Winnipeg cannot afford to pay a player of Little's caliber $4 million, which is why a one-year deal worth $3.5 million is the best outcome for the team in arbitration.
Predicted Outcome: The Jets should go to arbitration with Little and then choose to sign him to a long-term extension if he plays well next season.
Carl Gunnarsson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Arbitration Date: July 26
2013 Production and Salary: 15 points in 37 games, $1.25 million
Dispute Breakdown: The Leafs have four key free agents to re-sign, and the player who may cost them the most money is top-six center Nazem Kadri. To have the cap space needed to re-sign him, Toronto cannot afford to pay Gunnarsson more than what he's worth, which is about $1.5-2 million per season.
Gunnarsson was one of the Leafs' best defensemen last season with 15 points in 37 games, which was just four points away from his career high.
Unlike many of the players on Toronto's blue line, Gunnarsson plays a safe game and doesn't make many mistakes. He's a defensive defenseman who plays well in his own end and was a major contributor (2:35 of ice time per game) to the league's second-best penalty kill last season.
With that said, paying Gunnarsson more than $2 million would be a mistake because there are other more important RFAs for the Leafs to re-sign.
Predicted Outcome: To avoid a bad result in arbitration and the loss of valuable cap space, expect the Leafs and Gunnarsson to finalize a deal before his hearing.
Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers
Arbitration Date: July 31
2013 Production and Salary: 8 points in 15 games, $700,000
Dispute Breakdown: The Rangers are not in a good situation, with only $3,330,833 in cap space and still having to re-sign top-line center Derek Stepan, who deserves a huge raise from the $875,000 he earned as the team's leading scorer last season.
This is why the Rangers should avoid arbitration with Zuccarello, because any extra cap space lost will hurt the team's ability to re-sign Stepan.
Zuccarello joined the Rangers late in the regular season and was a productive player who provided valuable scoring depth and speed to the third line. However, the 25-year-old winger still needs to prove that he can be a productive player on a consistent basis for a full season.
This is why reaching a deal before arbitration that includes a small raise is the best possible outcome for New York.
Predicted Outcome: The Rangers and Zuccarello reach a one-year deal worth less than $1 million.
Trevor Lewis, Los Angeles Kings
Arbitration Date: August 2
2013 Production and Salary: 14 points in 48 games, $700,000
Dispute Breakdown: The Kings already have 11 forwards under contract for next season and three RFA forwards to consider re-signing, including Trevor Lewis and Jordan Nolan (also scheduled for arbitration).
Lewis was a good bottom-six forward last season, but he's shouldn't earn anything more than $1 million in 2013-14. Since the Kings have only $2,278,106 in cap space, Lewis should be re-signed before arbitration to avoid the team losing an unideal amount of cap space.
Predicted Outcome: Lewis and the Kings agree to a one-year deal and avoid arbitration. Of the four Kings who filed for arbitration, two of them (Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin) have already re-signed.
Nick Spaling, Nashville Predators
Arbitration Date: July 22
2013 Production and Salary: 13 points in 47 games, $1.1 million
Dispute Breakdown: Depth forward Nick Spaling scored nine goals in 47 games last year, which was just one less than he scored in 77 games the season before. For a team that ranked 29th in goals scored last season, a player like Spaling could be valuable.
But after signing several role players in free agency, including Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks, Spaling might not receive much ice time next season, even as a fourth-line forward. He's not the type of player worth $1.1 million, or more if he gets a raise through arbitration.
The ideal situation for Nashville would be to trade Spaling, but it's hard to imagine that a team would make a deal for him when there's a chance he could hit the free-agent market after arbitration.
Predicted Outcome: The Predators and Spaling go to arbitration, and the team allows him to become a UFA.
Mark Fraser, Toronto Maple Leafs
Arbitration Date: July 30
2013 Production and Salary: 8 points in 45 games, $600,000
Dispute Breakdown: Mark Fraser led the Leafs in blocked shots and hits last season. His physical game and willingness to battle for pucks in the defensive zone were two reasons why Toronto was a much tougher team to play against compared to the 2011-12 squad.
Fraser also received 1:57 of power-play and 2:01 of short-handed ice time per game last season, making him a valuable special teams player.
After becoming an important part of the Leafs' blue line, Fraser will be looking for a substantial raise. He deserves a salary of at least $1 million next season, but Toronto also has to re-sign Gunnarsson and Cody Franson this summer as RFA defensemen.
With that said, it would be wise of the Leafs to avoid arbitration and finalize a contract to prevent the possibility that Fraser gets a huge raise and takes away some of the team's important salary cap space.
Predicted Outcome: Toronto and Fraser agree to a multi-year deal.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.