The frenzy has now simmered to the meddling monotony of diamond hunting in the second tier of free agents. But while that hunt continues and teams begrudgingly sign the likes of Jason Arnott and Sergei Samsonov, another deadline looms tonight for a group important players, a deadline that spawns a search of its own.
A handful of players–most notably Clarke MacArthur, Teddy Purcell, Ryan Callahan, and Brandon Dubinsky–are RFAs who have arbitration rights, and have until 5 p.m. ET to file. For both player and GM, it’s a process that aims to pinpoint a players’ identity and future.
For the fan, merely hearing the word “arbitration” can be scary, making the possibility of losing a key player seem very real. And in a sense this fear is justified, because the process is akin to issuing an ultimatum. Once an arbitrator makes his ruling in late July or early August, the team can either accept the terms of the one-year contract, or walk away and allow the player to become an unrestricted free agent.
Last summer the cap crunched Chicago Blackhawks chose the latter with Antti Niemi, allowing the netminder who patrolled the crease during their Stanley Cup run to join the massive Windy City exodus. An arbitrator awarded Niemi a $2.75 million contract, a sum too large for the defending champs who had already jettisoned Dustin Byfuglien and Ladd, amongst others. Niemi then signed a four-year deal with San Jose worth $15.2 million, with an annual cap hit of $3.8 million.
For the smart general manager dealing with the perils of managing the salary cap, arbitration is a welcome process, and it’s what will make the case MacArthur the most intriguing of the players likely highlighting the arbitration group.
Brian Burke originally acquired MacArthur last summer when the Atlanta Thrashers weren’t willing to pay the $2.4 million price tag an arbitrator determined. Burke then nabbed MacArthur at a discounted rate, signing the winger to a one-year deal worth $1.1 million.
MacArthur proceeded to make Burke look like a rather intelligent man, although he’ll likely still have to convince Steve Simmons. While playing under his discounted rate, MacArthur shattered his previous career highs in all three major offensive categories. He scored 21 goals, 41 assists (which led the team), and 62 points while playing in his first full 82-game season.
But here’s where this becomes a fact-finding mission. While MacArthur’s season was remarkable, the 26-year-old’s previous watermark for points was a paltry 31. So was this outburst in 2010-11 an outlier, or simply a product of a talented player finally receiving consistent playing time? Burke spoke to Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun prior to the draft and said that’s exactly what he’s trying to determine, and it’s why he has no fear of arbitration.
“The problem is I’m not prepared to commit to a long-term contract for a player who really had one productive year,” Burke said at the team hotel where the Leafs are preparing for this weekend’s NHL entry draft.
“Putting a value on that is not easy either. That’s why we haven’t been able to sign him. It’s not that he’s being unreasonable, it’s just ‘What is he?’
“Is he a 70-point player or is he a 35-point player where he has been most of his career, so I’m not surprised we’re having a difficult time arriving at a value.”
Still a young player, MacArthur is pursuing both fair market value and long-term security, two things Burke may be hesitant to offer a potential one-hit wonder. They’re still in negotiations, with Burke saying yesterday that it’s too early to tell if arbitration will be avoided. His physical play–MacArthur had 115 hits–and two-way ability need to be weighted fairly along with the fact that his point total equaled the likes of David Krejci, Martin Havlat, Milan Lucic, David Backes, and Jeff Skinner.
And when that’s done the MacArthur camp likely won’t accept anything less than a multi-year deal for a sizable fee, seizing the opportunity to strike with his value rising during a time when an unforgiving market is spitting out greenery to marginal players.