SANTA CRUZ, July 25, 2014— It is July, and, for hockey fans, that can only mean one thing: having been unable to agree on new contracts, some of their favorite players are opting for salary arbitration. It is an uneasy time for supporters who want to see their favorite teams keep their best players. Hockey fans are torn between siding with the player and the club. Is the player just being greedy? Is the club trying to keep the players in their place? Perhaps both scenarios are accurate.
Given the events of the previous week, it would appear that avoiding arbitration has become the new trend in the NHL. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, arbitration was all the rage, with the teams usually coming out on top. Even as players were publicly gracious, the process typically created irreparable rifts between the player and management. These schisms, perhaps unavoidable, generally heralded the beginning of the end of that player’s stay in that city. The process has proved to be so divisive that the two sides are seldom able to ever fully reconcile.
In the past few weeks, several high profile players have avoided arbitration, agreeing to new contracts with their teams. Among the biggest names, Chris Kreider (NY Rangers), Vladimir Sobotka (St. Louis Blues), Cody Franson (Toronto Maple Leafs), Lars Eller (Montreal Canadians), and, maybe the biggest, Ryan O’Reilly (Colorado Avalanche).
Arbitration is where the honeymoon between player and team officially ends. All sides meet with a neutral arbitrator assigned by the league. The player (and their agent) will present comparables and statistics which bolster the player’s claim that they ought to be paid more than their current rate. The club then counters by tearing down the player, their performance, and their numbers, in an attempt to prove that they deserve less money than they are seeking.
While the meetings are civil, the latent acrimony is unavoidable, and, even if the arbitrator rules in favor of the team, it is often the last contract that player will sign with them. The relationship routinely sours after the process. No player wants to hear their play or character devalued by an organization they have worked, sweated and bled for, and general managers, despite any personal affection they may feel towards that player, must always look at the bigger picture, a view which, unfortunately, reduces the players to pieces on a board. They are tasked with keeping payroll under the league-mandated cap, while making sure they do not overpay for a player who is closer to the end of their career than the beginning.
With so many top end players avoiding arbitration this summer, it is possible that teams are setting them up for long term deals which will keep them under club control through the bulk of their most productive years. It gives the players a sense of security and ability to put down roots in their communities, while removing the perils of management dealing with the same caustic process again in another year or two.
Most of the players who recently avoided arbitration are young, approaching the prime epoch of their careers. Agreeing to new contracts will help remove the distraction and rancor, allowing them to focus on their performance on the ice, and enable them to embed themselves fully in their respective communities for the foreseeable future, a scenario that benefits players and ownership alike.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.