It’s that wonderful time of year where restricted free agents from across the NHL file for arbitration, in the hope of increasing their pay to a level they feel is more representative of their skill level. Many of these will settle before their hearings – contentious events that can poison the relationship between a player and a team permanently.
While there are some relatively big names with hearings coming up – Antii Niemi, Blake Wheeler, and Ian White, for example – there are also a lot of smaller fish, players who live on the edges of their NHL team’s roster. For those players, arbitration can mean a lot more than it does to some of the bigger names out there.
The reason I say that is because after an arbitration award falls below a certain threshold, the NHL club no longer has the right to walk away from the deal. From the CBA:
If a Club has elected to arbitrate a one-year SPC, and the award issued is for $1,042,173 or more per annum, then the Club may, within forty-eight (48) hours after the award of the Salary Arbitrator is issued (or, if a Club has any other Player still eligible for salary arbitration at that time and for whom a decision has not been rendered by a Salary Arbitrator at that time, and the Club still has a walk-away right available to it in such League Year pursuant to paragraph (c) below, forty-eight (48) hours after the award of the Salary Arbitrator for such other Player is issued or that Player’s arbitration case is settled), notify the Player or his Certified Agent, if any, the NHLPA and the NHL in writing, in accordance with Exhibit 3 hereof, that it does not intend to tender to the Player an SPC based on the award as determined by the Salary Arbitrator. Upon receipt of that notice, the Player shall automatically be deemed to be an Unrestricted Free Agent.
In other words, if an arbitrator sees Antii Niemi’s Stanley Cup ring and goes a little crazy, Chicago has the right to walk away. But if an arbitrator decides that Nate Thompson – a relatively new NHL player who we could reasonably argue is on the bubble – is worth a one-way, $1.0 million dollar contract, then Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning have no choice but to choke down their indignation and pay the man.
I’d strongly suggest that this is an advantageous route for any eligible bubble player who has been qualified by his team, at least in the short-term. I’m sure we’ve all seen cases of players with greater ability starting in the minors by virtue of their two-way contract, while a lesser player with a one-way deal gets a bit of a push in training camp. More than that, even if that lesser player is sent to the minors, he’ll still be earning his NHL pay check – which is generally going to be around five times his AHL salary, even on a league minimum deal. For NHL teams, the only defence against this ploy is either a) not qualifying the player or b) destroying him in arbitration. Neither option is particularly appealing.
The cut-off point for clubs walking away is not publicly available right now, because neither the NHL average salary for this past season nor the formula for calculating average salary (set out by arbitrator George Nicolau in a 1995 ruling) has been published. The last reliable data we have is from 2007-08, where the average salary was $1,906,793. My estimates place it just under $2.0 million at this point in time, but for the sake of safety let’s use the 2007-08 numbers, which would give us a walk-away point of $1.163 million. Anything less than that, and a team is stuck with the arbiter’s decision.
Here are the depth players currently slated for arbitration who may be on the roster bubble with their current team:
- Fabian Brunnstrom, Dallas: Once compared to Daniel Alfredsson, Brunnstrom spent eight games in the minors last season after a disastrous year that saw him in and out of the line-up. Just a one-way deal would be a godsend.
- Jeff Deslauriers, Edmonton: For my money, the most interesting player on this list. Deslauriers was the de facto starter in Edmonton last season, but appears to have been passed by Devan Dubnyk. If Nikolai Khabibulin returns (from injury and/or prison) in time to play next season, Deslauriers’ spot on the Oilers roster is gone: G.M. Steve Tambellini has already said he won’t carry three goaltenders. If I were Deslauriers, I would be eschewing salary in favour of term at the the hearing, if at all possible. For more on this, see Scott Reynold’s excellent write-up, which was the inspiration for this piece.
- Mark Fraser, New Jersey: Just one season removed from the minors, Fraser was on a two-way deal last year, and while the stay-at-home defenceman probably wasn’t in serious danger of losing his job, he’s bound to be awarded his first ever one-way contract in arbitration.
- Jannik Hansen, Vancouver: The two-year NHL’er (although he’s spent time with the Manitoba Moose each of the last two seasons) looks to be a fourth-liner in Vancouver next year, and seems likely to get his first ever one-way contract and probably a raise over last season’s $550,000.
- Derek Meech, Detroit: The part-time defenceman has been with the Red Wings for most of the past three seasons after spending three years with their AHL affiliate. While his spot on the NHL roster is probably not in jeopardy, Meech can still earn a significant raise over last year’s $500,000. I expect to see him closer to the $800,000 mark.
- Nate Thompson, Tampa Bay: Even with Tampa’s rather sparse group of forwards (as of this writing, only five are under contract) one has to imagine Thompson’s NHL job was in serious jeopardy; the average-sized forward scored just two goals in 71 games last year. A one-way contract would be a welcome lifeline.