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Team-elected arbitration only used by Sabres on Kaleta, but threat likely spurred Halak deal

When the NHL was negotiating the last collective bargaining agreement, it made a point of ensuring that teams had the opportunity to take players to salary arbitration.

But teams almost never use club-elected arbitration and this summer is no exception. When the deadline passed for club-elected salary arbitration Tuesday afternoon, the only name on the list was Patrick Kaleta of the Buffalo Sabres.

The 24-year-old right winger had the best offensive season of his career in 2009-10 when he scored 10 goals and 15 points in 55 games to go with 89 penalty minutes. He made $522,500 last season. Over the course of his career, Kaleta has scored 17 goals and 31 points in 153 games.

The arbitration case ensures Kaleta will be under contract next season. He can opt for a one- or two-year award if he does not come to a contract agreement with the Sabres before the decision is handed down, likely sometime in August.

Teams can take a player to arbitration only once during his career and perhaps that’s why the tactic has not been used often. Last summer, the only team to elect salary arbitration was the Minnesota Wild with goaltender Josh Harding.

But the threat of taking a player to arbitration might also be the impetus the team and player need to come to a contract. Had the St. Louis Blues and Jaroslav Halak not come to a four-year deal worth $15 million Tuesday afternoon, the Blues would have had the option to take Halak to arbitration to force a contract.

The biggest beneficiary of the Halak contract, aside from Halak himself, might be Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi, who elected for arbitration Monday. The arbitration process relies heavily on comparables and prior to the Halak contract, there had been virtually no comparables for Niemi.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Niemi will get a contract worth $3.75 per season in arbitration. Niemi’s award would be only a one- or two-year award and it’s difficult to compare that to a four-year deal, particularly since one of those seasons Halak would have been an unrestricted free agent. Generally speaking, more of a premium is put on longer contracts and every year a team can avoid unrestricted free agency comes at a cost.

But Niemi did win the Stanley Cup and, in many ways, saved the Blackhawks season in goal. How much weight the arbitrator would put on that is impossible to determine, but at least now he/she has another similar goaltender with whom to compare Niemi.

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