“So You’ve Filed For Player-Elected Salary Arbitration”
“Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You might remember me from such movies as I Almost Bled To Death On The Ice 1, I Almost Bled To Death On The Ice 2, and everybody’s favorite, That Damned Delay Of Game Penalty Should Be Called Like An Icing. Today I’m here to help you wade through the process known as ‘Player-Elected Salary Arbitration’. Come with me on our journey as we discover what this mysterious phrase means to you.”
Last night, NHL player agent Allan Walsh used Twitter to share a tidbit about his client Andrej Sekera:
The phrase “salary arbitration” has not been too kind to Sabres fans post-lockout (Daniel Briere in 2006 and Tim Kennedy in 2010 come to mind), but not every fan knows the intricacies of the arbitration process. After answering some questions on Twitter last night, I felt compelled to write a post about this facet of free agency. Instead of getting all fancy with you and referencing the 2005/2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement, I figured I’d just spell it out in plain talk. (If you do want to reference the CBA, salary arbitration is covered under Article 12)
A player is only eligible for arbitration once he plays a certain number of seasons in the NHL. Based on the age in which he signed his first contract, the number of seasons changes. For Sekera, who signed his first contract prior to the 2006/2007 season, he hit the requisite number of seasons played (3) last offseason.
Regardless of a player or team filing for salary arbitration, the deadline is the same each summer – 5PM ET on July 5th. Filings must be made before then to be heard by an independent arbitrator.
There are two types of arbitration: player-elected arbitration (what Sekera filed for) and club-elected arbitration (what the Sabres filed for regarding Tim Kennedy last summer). In either case, the player and the team cannot come to terms on a new contract so they take it to a neutral arbitrator who will decide what the player is worth. The team’s job is to knock the player down a peg, while the agent’s job is to prop his client up as high as possible. Then outside evidence such as comparable production and comparable contracts are introduced to the hearing. In the end, the arbitrator hands down his ruling as to what a player is worth.
What To Do With The Ruling
The team can, within 48 hours, either accept that ruling and sign the player in question to a one or two year deal or they can reject it and immediately release the player as an Unrestricted Free Agent. There is a third, rarely-invoked option that deems an arbitration award under a certain point cannot be walked away from and must be accepted by the team. This is what happened with Tim Kennedy’s arbitration hearing, leading to his buyout.
With all of that out of the way, let’s go back to talking about comparables. Andrej Sekera made $1.25M last season while scoring 3 goals and 26 points. Outside of his statistical production, his play fluctuated wildly between dominant and head-shakingly bad. If you were to compare similar players to Sekera (in terms of production and contract), Columbus’ Anton Stralman, Calgary’s Anton Babchuk, and Vancouver’s Alexander Edler come to mind. Stralman was re-signed by Columbus for $1.95M for the 10/11 season after scoring 6 goals and 34 points. Babchuk scored 8 goals and 27 points this last season, netting him a two year deal worth $2.5M. Edler, in the second year of a contract that pays him $3.25M, scored 8 goals and 32 points.
If you were to take those three salary figures and average them together, you’d get $2.57M – not a bad number by any means for a player with dynamic skills and a 30+ point ceiling. If you look at Columbus’ Marc Methot and his new deal, he’s being paid $3M a year but has never scored more than 17 points in an NHL season. A contract like that will likely skew the arbitration award in favor of Sekera’s camp, bring his award up between $2.75M and $3M. I just don’t see the Sabres doing such a bad job in pleading their case that the award rises above $3M.
All this talk about comparable players and likely awards is all well and good, but there’s a strong possibility that the two sides never make it to their hearing. Both parties will continue to negotiate a new deal right up to their hearing, but if Walsh is to be taken at his word, the discrepancy isn’t about money:
If the only detail in question is contract length and not salary, I’d fully expect the Sabres to agree to terms with Andrej Sekera on a new multi-year deal before the hearing comes to session.