Ryan O'Reilly and P.K. Subban are the most prominent names headed to NHL arbitration, starting Monday. Colorado and Montreal may come out with favorable rulings, but relationships between player and team may be damaged in the process.
The NHL's salary arbitration hearings begin Monday, July 21 through Aug. 1 in Toronto. While 23 hearings were scheduled (20 player-elected, three club-elected), as of July 15 four players – Boston’s Matt Bartkowski, Dallas’ Cameron Gaunce, Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm and Ottawa’s Derek Grant – avoided arbitration by re-signing with their teams. Another, St. Louis’ Vladimir Sobotka, has jumped to the KHL.
Most NHL arbitration cases never reach an arbiter, as players often re-sign with their teams before the hearing takes place. It's a process both sides prefer to avoid. It's ego-bruising for the player as management makes its case over why he’s not worth the salary he seeks. Management subsequently risks losing that player to unrestricted free agency once his arbiter-awarded contract has expired.
In most cases, arbitration is used as a negotiation tactic by both sides. For the player and management, it establishes a deadline toward reaching a new contract without negotiations dragging on into training camp and pre-season. When a team takes a player to arbitration, it's also to prevent him from receiving an offer sheet from a rival club, except for a five-day window from July 1-5.
Several notable players filed for arbitration this summer. The biggest name is Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, who's coming off a two-year $5.75-million contract. It could take an eight-year deal worth $7.5 to $8.5 million annually for the Canadiens to avoid an Aug. 1 arbitration hearing for the 2013 Norris Trophy winner. The Habs also face a hearing with center Lars Eller July 25.
The New York Rangers have the most players filing for arbitration in forwards Derick Brassard (whose hearing is July 28), Chris Kreider (July 23) and Mats Zuccarello (July 25). The Toronto Maple Leafs have two players in Cody Franson (July 21) and James Reimer (July 28) due for hearings. The pair are frequently mentioned in trade rumors since last season. It’ll be interesting to see how Leafs management responds if one or both end up receiving arbiter-awarded contracts.
The most intriguing case is that of Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan O'Reilly. The Avalanche filed for salary arbitration with the 23-year-old winger to avoid paying $6.5 million to qualify his rights. Last month, the Denver Post’s Adrian Dater reported management wanted to negotiate off O'Reilly’s average annual cap hit ($5 million), while his agent preferred negotiations start at his client’s actual salary for last season ($6.5 million).
Dater reports he believes the Avalanche and O'Reilly are headed to arbitration. If so, O'Reilly will have his choice of accepting a one- or two-year deal from the arbiter and won't get less than 85 percent of his $6.5-million salary from last season, meaning he'll receive $5.525 million annually.
Because the Avalanche filed to take O'Reilly to arbitration, they cannot walk away from whatever award he receives. If it's $5.525 million they'll be pleased, as it will be considerably less than the cost of qualifying his rights.
The downside, of course, is O'Reilly could be unwilling to entertain a long-term deal in Colorado when his arbiter-awarded deal is expired. Dater believes the Avalanche will retain the winger only as long as they cannot receive a decent trade offer. If there's no possibility of re-signing O'Reilly to a long-term contract, Dater feels they have to move him rather than risk losing him for nothing to free agency as they did this summer with Paul Stastny.
Whatever award O'Reilly gets from an arbiter, the Avalanche could start shopping him before the start of the season, especially if he chooses a one-year contract. They don't need questions over O'Reilly's future dogging the club entering the season.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.