Arbitration cases rarely go through the hearing stage in the NHL, so for Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets to have reached this point in their negotiations – on the first scheduled day of hearing dates no less – is a major surprise. TSN’s Sara Orlesky reports that the two sides did in fact sit down for their hearing with the arbitrator and that a decision will be handed down in the next 48 hours. The Jets and Trouba have until that decision is made to agree to a deal on their own terms, likely a long-term extension, otherwise they will be stuck with a one-year deal and have to go through the process once again next summer.
So what exactly did it look like in the hearing today? Likely not what many would think. While the player and team are present during presentations to the arbitrator, neither team executives nor the player’s representation are in charge of arguing the case. The NHL Players’ Association handles the player side, while the teams use one of three lawyers to present their side: Dan Rabinowitz and Andre Nowakowski of Miller-Thomson in Toronto or Andre Lepage of BFC in Montreal. Each side makes their case based on briefs that they have previously filed to both the opposing side and the arbitrator, bringing in exhibits to support their arguments as well. The briefs contain the salary figures sought; the Jets reportedly filed at $4MM and Trouba at $7MM. It is a wide spread for the abitrator to consider and he may decide at or in between those figures.
What is the content of the arguments? Also somewhat contrary to what one may think, the two sides spend little time actually arguing the merits of the player, at least in absolute terms. The backbone of a salary arbitration case is the comparable players. For Trouba, the NHLPA would generally have comparable players that make $7MM or more to show that their filing number is fair, while the team reps will use comparable players around $4MM or less to prove their value. Each side will identify strengths or weaknesses to the player and find comparables that they can use to strengthen those points. The use of concrete search criteria to choose comparable players is key and often results in both sides tweaking their criteria ever so much that it includes only player who benefit their case. There are also rules regarding the players used: they must be current contracts, they must be recent contracts, and they must be contracts signed by a player who was or would have been an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent. Any deviation from this criteria would seriously injure the persuasiveness of the use of that comparable player. Other things that cannot be considered are off-ice behavior, even including something like Trouba’s previous contract holdout, or the team’s salary cap or roster depth status, which the Jets wish they could use in this case.
So who might be comparables in the Trouba case? The filing numbers for both sides suggest that there could be a wide range of possibilities. Using only the most basic metrics – games played and points-per-game – players like Justin Schultz, Colton Parayko, and Tyson Barrie lie right in the middle of the two values at $5.5MM and either side might struggle to use them effectively. Unfortunately for the NHLPA, those appear to be their best options. The case for any might be percentage of the salary cap rather than actual salary, given the major jump this off-season. Players like Torey Krug, Jared Spurgeon, Sami Vatanen and Dmitry Orlov would favor the Jets slightly more, but their home run option is likely a player like David Savard at $4.25MM.
After all the comparables have been presented, arguments have been made, and rebuttals and closing comments have been heard, the arbitrator will take his time to make the decision on just how much Trouba is worth based on everything he has witnessed. During that time, the two sides – who have also been enlightened to some extent – also come back together and talk contract terms. In recent years, hearings have more often than not led to independent agreements and not official decisions. Will it be the same for Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets? We will know soon enough.