It’s no secret that salary arbitration is not a friendly process. If a player does make it all the way through the hearing, that means that they’ve sat through a presentation by their own team about just how bad they are compared to other similar players. While teams and players often use the threat of the unknown of an arbitrator’s decision to move contract talks along, the potential unpleasantness of a hearing is also plenty of motivation to come to terms. Case in point: Colorado’s Sheldon Dries, who today settled on a one-year, two-way contract worth $735K. Dries’ contract comes in just $35K above the absolute worst possible outcome in an arbitration hearing, yet he opted not to argue his case in hopes of a better outcome. Why? Likely to avoid the breakdown in a relationship between he and the Avalanche if the hearing got ugly. It’s more common than it may seem – The Athletic’s Craig Custance crunched the numbers and found that the vast majority of players who go through an arbitration hearing end up leaving that team, one way or another.
Over the past ten years, 27 players have gone into a hearing. Not all of those players required an arbitrator’s award, but any resulting settlements still came after the unfortunate back-and-forth. Of those 27 players, Custance found that 14 were on new teams within a year and 21 were on new teams within three years. All of last summer’s cases – Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba, Ottawa’s Cody Ceci, Calgary’s Brett Kulak, and Dallas’ Gemel Smith – are on new teams now. In fact, of the 27 players who have reached a hearing since 2009, no player before 2015 remains on the team that the faced off with and only four players since still remain on good terms with their club: Nashville’s Craig Smith and Viktor Arvidsson, Washington’s Braden Holtby, and Vegas’ Nate Schmidt. This all goes to show that arbitration can be a dangerous method of negotiating for teams, even if the goal is to settle before an arbitrator’s decision. The numbers convincingly imply that an arbitration hearing is the death knell for a player’s relationship with his team. As far as this off-season goes, this analysis doesn’t bode well for Andrew Copp and the Jets, Christian Djoos and the Capitals, and Evan Rodrigues and the Sabres, all of whom not only went to hearings already this summer, but whose awards all favored the team more so than the player. With ten potential cases still to go, there could be even more players who one day look back at this off-season as the beginning of the end.
- The Capitals may very well end up back in front of an arbitrator before long, with a case against forward Chandler Stephenson scheduled for August 1st. Although the decision in the Djoos case – a $1.25MM award against a $1.35MM midpoint – favored the team, it still puts them in a difficult situation regarding the salary cap and eliminates some hope that a resolution with Stephenson could come prior to a hearing. Washington is currently more than $300K over the salary cap ceiling after signing Djoos. While young defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler can be returned to the AHL without the threat of waivers for a $714K drop to get under the cap, it would leave the Capitals with just six defensemen. All of Washington’s 14 NHL forwards, including Stephenson, would be subject to waivers, although the team would likely want to carry that many forwards anyway. It’s a difficult conundrum not made any easier by the unknown of Stephenson’s contract either. The 25-year-old forward recorded 18 points in 67 games in 2017-18 and another 11 points in 62 games this past season. He will likely seek a salary of $1MM or more, a number that Washington simply cannot palate. Asked who the team would choose if faced with a choice between trading away Djoos or Stephenson to open up cap space and roster flexibility, NBC Sports’ J.J. Regan did not hesitate to say that Stephenson would be the one dealt. Defense is in short supply for the Capitals and Djoos is a proven starter. Stephenson on the other hand would be an expendable piece in a deep forward corps. It may not matter though, as moving Stephenson alone is unlikely to be a sufficient answer to Washington’s cap troubles.
- If you think the Capitals having two cases is bad, wait until you hear about the Sabres. Like Washington, Buffalo has already been through one hearing this summer with forward Evan Rodrigues, landing a $2MM award against a $2.075MM midpoint. It was somewhat of a surprising decision and may have given GM Jason Botterill and company some confidence moving forward. That could wind up being a problem for all parties involved, as three of the remaining ten scheduled cases are also Sabres players: forward Remi Elie, goalie Linus Ullmark, and defenseman Jake McCabe. If Buffalo goes to hearing with even one more of these players, never mind all three, it could be a bad look for the organization and could cause a breakdown in numerous player relationships. However, if the team continues to win their arbitration battles, it would be a major help this season, as the team has just over $3MM in cap space left to sign the trio. It’s a long-term risk for a short-term gain for the Sabres.