Salary arbitration season is already almost over, as hearings began on July 20th and extend through this Sunday, August 4th. While arbitration awards are very infrequent, with most cases settling beforehand, occasionally a binding decision is handed down by the arbitrator. Four such cases have gone all the way through the process this year, with four more left on the schedule. What goes on behind closed doors before the point of an arbitrator’s award? The players, aided by their representation and the NHLPA, and their respective teams, aided by a select group of lawyers, each file at a certain salary over a one- or two-year term. The arbitrator may decide on any salary at or between those two points, based on the arguments in each sides’ written brief and oral presentation. While both sides will have themes to base their arguments on, rather than debate only the merits of the player, the bulk of the conversation in an arbitration hearing instead centers around comparable players. Each side will use a tailored group of statistical ranges, both career and platform year numbers, to show how the player compares to similar recent arbitration-eligible players. All statistics are available to use, but their persuasiveness is the key. The player side will look to show that the player is superior to a group of players at a salary lower than their filing number, while the team side will look to show that player is inferior to a group of players above their filing number. Whoever makes the most convincing argument will land the favorable decision.
In our final breakdown this off-season, we’re doing something different and using two players who are both scheduled to go to hearing on Sunday: the St. Louis Blues’ Joel Edmundson and the Buffalo Sabres’ Jake McCabe. The pair of defensemen are remarkably similar and one would almost certainly end up as a comparable player in the other’s case if he was to settle in the next 36 hours or so. Even if that doesn’t happen, the two could certainly share some other comparables. Both Edmundson and McCabe fit within a rough criteria of between 220 and 320 career games played and .175 and .25 career points per game. The same margins were used to find potential shared comparables, but how the players may be used can differ by case. Here is a closer look:
Career Statistics: 269 games played, 13 goals, 39 assists, 52 points, +18 rating, 18:13 ATOI
Platform Statistics: 64 games played, 2 goals, 9 assists, 11 points, +8 rating, 19:23 ATOI
Filing Numbers: Edmundson – One year, $4.2MM, Blues – One year, $2.3MM (midpoint: $3.25MM)
Career Statistics: 274 games played, 14 goals, 47 assists, 61 points, -19 rating, 19:26 ATOI
Platform Statistics: 59 games played, 4 goals, 10 assists, 14 points, -4 rating, 18:57 ATOI
Filing Numbers: McCabe – One year, $4.3MM, Sabres – One year, $1.95MM (midpoint: $3.125MM)
Potential Comparable Players
Nikita Zadorov (2019)
Career Statistics: 292 games played, 18 goals, 44 assists, 62 points, -16 rating, 18:14 ATOI
Platform Statistics: 70 games played, 7 goals, 7 assists, 14 points, +19 rating, 17:12 ATOI
- Edmundson’s Case: Team Side Comp – Although Zadorov’s new contract comes in slightly below the midpoint of Edmundson and the Blues, St. Louis will likely still use Zadorov as a comparable player. A similar size and style of player to Edmundson, Zadorov has more experience despite being two years younger. That alone is a strong argument. Although Zadorov’s additional career games played skew his numbers somewhat as a comparison, it doesn’t influence his career points per game, which is higher than Edmundson’s. Both players have very similar ice time numbers in their careers, including a drop-off in the platform. However, Zadorov has made the greater impact in terms of games played, as Edmundson has never surpassed 70 games in a season. Zadorov also has a major edge in the physical game. Edmundson’s camp will argue that he is the more adept shot blocker as well as shot taker and played a bigger role in the platform season, but this is a tough comp for the player side.
- McCabe’s Case: Common Comp – McCabe has a much better case against Zadorov than Edmundson. First, he is more similar in both age and experience. Second, he has the superior career points per game by a notable margin. Zadorov’s salary is on the opposite side of the midpoint for McCabe’s case compared to Edmundson’s, so the player side will argue that the award belongs on the plus side. However, he could end up as a common comparable player, as the Sabres have a strong case that Zadorov’s age and experience along with far superior physical game offset McCabe’s slight offensive advantages. They can also not McCabe’s lack of availability, playing less than 60 games in each of the past two years while Zadorov has played 70+. Zadorov could be the defining case for McCabe.
Trevor van Riemsdyk (2018)
Career Statistics: 237 games played, 11 goals, 36 assists, 47 points, +21 rating, 18:08 ATOI
Platform Statistics: 79 games played, 3 goals, 13 assists, 16 points, +9 rating, 17:03 ATOI
- Edmundson’s Case: Player Side Comp – How well Edmundson contrasts himself with van Riemsdyk could make or break his case. Edmundson is younger and has more experience that van Riemsdyk did and is unquestionably a better physical force. However, van Riemsdyk has slightly better career scoring numbers and enjoyed a stronger platform season on the score sheet. The team side will counter with these points and, while they won’t succeed in driving Edmundson’s price down to van Riemsdyk’s $2.3MM, they could use him as a bench mark to show why they filed at that number.
- McCabe’s Case: Player Side Comp – McCabe has age, experience, scoring, and physicality all on his side in a comparison with van Riemsdyk and his camp can use that to show that McCabe is worth well more than $2.3MM and closer to or exceeding Zadorov’s $3.2MM. Again, one weakness that the team side will counter with his health and availability, as van Riemsdyk played in 79 games in the platform season and has a full 82-game season on his resume, while McCabe has missed 50+ games over the past two seasons.
Andrej Sustr (2017)
Career Statistics: 274 games played, 8 goals, 48 assists, 56 points, +2 rating, 17:05 ATOI
Platform Statistics: 80 games played, 3 goals, 11 assists, 14 points, -10 rating, 17:35 ATOI
- Edmundson’s Case: Player Side Comp – Edmundson’s camp could use the Sustr comp to further show that they are worthy of a higher award despite lacking offensive numbers. Edmundson is simply hands down the superior defensive player, with nearly 400 more career hits in fewer games, as well as substantial leads in blocked shots, plus/minus, and ice time. The fact that Sustr is the better offensive player, both career and platform, will come up though and a strong argument by the Blues could bring the price down.
- McCabe’s Case: Player Side Comp – In the exact same amount of career games as Sustr had, McCabe has only five more points, but has almost 300 more hits and more than 100 more blocked shots. While McCabe’s camp has used offense as their main argument against other comparables, he is simply a much better defensive player than Sustr, as well as slightly better offensively. There’s also age and ice time arguments to be made. Buffalo will simply argue that the fact that Sustr shows up as a comp at $1.95MM justifies their filing number and should drive down the price of the award.
When healthy, there is little question that McCabe is the best defenseman among this group. However, his health over the past couple of years is a concern. Whether or not the arbitrator thinks that it is a persuasive argument will play a key role in the award. Using van Riesmdyk and Sustr to boost their case, the player side should be at least be able to get close to Zadorov’s $3.2MM. However, it’s a toss up at that point between the two and the injury concerns could play a role. Leaving a narrow margin for an arbitrator who value blue line offense above all else, the likely range for an award is between $3-3.4MM. It thus stands to reason that McCabe has a good chance of receiving a favorable award.
Although he may be the bigger name, Edmundson’s odds are not as strong. It’s difficult to see an arbitrator agreeing that Edmundson is a superior player to Zadorov, whose salary comes in slightly below the midpoint of the case. That makes the chances fairly slim that he will receive a favorable award versus the Blues. As for the specific result, the van Riemsdyk comparison will be the key, as he is a more similar player results-wise. If Edmundson’s camp can express that Edmundson is not just slightly better, but much better and also younger and more experienced, they could wind up pushing $3MM. Expect the range to be somewhere around $2.6-3MM, though.