NHL Arbitration: Potential for Bruised Feelings Makes Actual Hearings Rare

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistJuly 21, 2016

Colorado's Tyson Barrie
Colorado's Tyson BarrieDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

It's easy to say "It was just business, nothing personal" in pro sports. Players are conditioned to expect criticism, and owners are conditioned to expect paying as much as a player can get. Usually, the sides come away saying "no hard feelings."

The process of arbitration, though, makes it a bit more difficult for the usually hardened sides not to take things a little more personally. Imagine having done a good job at work in the past year, but going in to a meeting with management where their sole goal is to pay you less than you think you're worth, and list the reasons why to your face. All the while, trying to reconcile management's words that are essentially, "Hey, we still want you around moving forward though." 

This is why most scheduled hearings don't actually happen. Of the 25 players who filed for arbitration, nine have already reached prehearing contract settlements with their teams, according to General Fanager. As of Thursday, not a single case has actually "gone to trial."

Arbitration hearings were set to kick off Wednesday in Toronto, with Marcus Johansson up against the management of the Washington Capitals. Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reported that Johansson submitted a salary desire of $5.25 million, while the Capitals submitted an offer of $3.85 million.

May 7, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals center Marcus Johansson (90) passes the puck as Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bonino (13) chases in the third period in game five of the second round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Cente
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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Right before his hearing was slated to start, Johansson reached agreement on a three-year, $13.75 million deal, per the Washington Post's Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Under terms of when a player elects for arbitration, the team can accept either a one-year or two-year binding contract as determined by the arbitrator. Or, in the case of players awarded $3.5 million or more, teams can "walk away" from the ruling. That would stop them from having to pay the money to the player, but it would also immediately make the player an unrestricted free agent.

Nobody much likes arbitration, except for maybe the agents. I had one tell me arbitration hearings are "our Super Bowl", where they get to bring spreadsheets full of stats and get to hone up on their trial skills (most player agents have law degrees). 

But management people don't much like arbitration hearings because they know they run the risk of alienating players, and players dread being told exactly why teams don't think they're worth it. Plus, it's a hassle time-wise and economically for both sides.

Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, all hearings are to be held in person in Toronto, with each side responsible for their expenses getting there, plus the split cost of the arbitrator's time. That means instead of enjoying their summers in their offseason cottages by the lake, players and management have to get on airplanes and book Toronto hotels before squaring off in a possibly contentious hearing. No wonder most cases settle.

But when they actually do go before the arbitrator, there can be hard feelings.

About 12 years ago, I briefly covered Tommy Salo, the former goalie with the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers who was finishing up his career with the Colorado Avalanche. In 1997, Salo engaged in what was reportedly one of the most contentious arbitration hearings the NHL has ever seen. 

Tommy Salo
Tommy SaloRobert Laberge/Getty Images

A quiet, sensitive Swede, Salo in '97 was only 26 and coming off his first full season in the NHL, having posted decent numbers (20 wins, 2.82 goals-against average) on a bad team. He made $300,000 on the last year of his contract, but couldn't come to agreement on a new deal with Isles GM Mike Milbury. So the Islanders decided to take the matter to arbitration.

There are no official minutes of the hearing, but Milbury's argument against Salo getting the number he wanted got so personal and so contentious that Salo broke down in tears right in the meeting roomas reported in "Fish Sticks: The Fall and Rise of the New York Islanders," by Peter Botte and Alan Hahn.

Salo still got a 150 percent raise from the arbitrator, a one-year deal worth $750,000. He played another two seasons with the Islanders before Milbury traded him to Edmonton, where he had several pretty good years. By the time he became a member of the Avs, I thought maybe the memory of the arbitration with Milbury would be old news, maybe even something he might laugh about so many years later.

Wrong. Salo's eyes shot daggers when the subject was brought up, and any plans for discussion about it were quickly abandoned.

While rare is the situation that gets as bad as it did with Salo, the 17 players who as of Tuesday night were still slated to have arbitration hearings with their clubs, according to General Fanager, do run the risk of hearing things that could be tough to forget for a while, if ever.

Arbitration can be a welcome relief in some situations for both sides, however, and that appears to be the situation right now between Tyson Barrie and the Colorado Avalanche. Unable to agree on a long-term contract, Barrie and his agent, Don Meehan, filed for arbitration, with the case set to be heard July 29.

Barrie, 24, is coming off a 49-point season as a defenseman and is well-regarded for his puck-moving abilities. He made $2.6 million last season, and based on what some others considered comparable to him as a player got recently (Torey Krug at $5.25 million per with Boston, for instance), Barrie no doubt is looking to get at least that much. 

But the Avs, an NHL source told me, aren't sweating the arbitration hearing with Barrie because they know they control his restricted free-agent rights for another three years. Most likely, the Avs will choose the two-year option from the arbitrator and know they can still keep him another season after that. Instead of haggling it out with Meehan all summer, Avs GM Joe Sakic knows he'll have closure on Barrie no more than 48 hours after July 29, for at least two more years. Sometimes it's just easier to let someone else decide.

Avs GM Joe Sakic
Avs GM Joe SakicDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

There have been lots of trade rumors regarding Barrie, but the same NHL source said they are unfounded. Sure, Barrie could still be traded at any time, but the Avs' plan is to get as much service from Barrie as they can under their contractual rights, then reassess down the road. If Barrie has a monster year or two, the Avs figure to make a very nice long-term extension offer. 

If Barrie doesn't want it, they would still have the option of trading a player at peak value. Either way, the Avs are in a win-win situation. They'll get at least two prime years of Barrie's play and possibly a sizable return in trade if they can't work out anything long term after that first or second year.

Other teams may be sweating it out more with their potential arbitration players. The New York Rangers have about $11 million in cap room, but how much of that will be gobbled up by possible arbitration awards to Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes? The Detroit Red Wings have only about $3.2 million in cap space at the moment, but goalie Petr Mrazek is slated to have an arbitration hearing against them on July 27, and it's possible he'll get an award that puts the team over the limit and thereby forces GM Ken Holland to sacrifice a player in a salary dump. What might the relations be between player and team from that point on?

They might get a little personal.


Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.

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