Athanasiou, Bennett and the NHL’s problem with arbitration rights

Negotiations between several RFAs and their respective clubs have dragged on all summer, but giving players arbitration rights following their entry-level contracts would provide a simple solution.

With roughly a week to go before training camps open up, some of the NHL’s most promising young players are without contracts and at risk of hampering their development by not being in camp or, in a worst-case scenario, sitting out part of the season.

In one case, that of Detroit Red Wings winger Andreas Athanasiou, the possibility of bolting to the KHL has come up. Now you have to understand that this is all part of the process. There is still plenty of time for both sides to get a deal done and while things look dire at the moment, that can change pretty quickly and dramatically. Neither the Red Wings nor Athanasiou’s camp have blinked yet. It’s one thing to hold the hammer of the KHL over a team’s head. It’s a completely different ball of wax to actually go ahead and use it.

That’s why it’s probably a little early to start taking sides on this one. Chances are, Athanasiou will be in uniform for the Red Wings this season on a bridge deal, and even if he is not, it simply means the team loses him during a year when it probably won’t make the playoffs anyway and retains his contract rights. So if Athanasiou thinks he can make a boatload of money in the KHL, which is entirely within his rights, he should probably go and do it. And if he thinks he’s worth more than $3 million a year with just 43 career points, that’s also within his rights to ask for it. But it’s doubtful that Wings GM Ken Holland is going to get into a bidding war against the KHL. Because if he does that, then next summer Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha will do the same thing. (It has been suggested that Holland should be fired if Athanasiou jumps to the KHL, which is actually an absurd notion. Has he made some questionable decisions with veteran players? Absolutely. But the Athanasiou situation as it stands now is not a firing offense, because the Red Wings still have him over a barrel contractually if he bolts.)

Meanwhile in Calgary, there seems to be a fair bit of hand-wringing, albeit none of it from GM Brad Treliving, over the fact that the chasm between Sam Bennett’s demands and what the Flames are offering is too wide. The battle between the Boston Bruins and David Pastrnak has been well documented. Bo Horvat still hasn’t come to terms with the Vancouver Canucks and Josh Anderson is still without a deal in Columbus. (Bennett, Athanasiou and Anderson, coincidentally, are all represented by player agent Darren Ferris.)

And what do all of these players have in common? Well, they’re all coming off entry-level contracts and have basically no leverage, aside from sitting out or jumping to the KHL. They are basically in a position to accept what the team is offering them or sit out. And this isn’t good for anyone. It’s certainly not good for the team, which risks alienating a young player and poisoning the relationship early in his career. And it’s detrimental to the player because he risks missing significant time at a very important developmental point in his career.

READ ALSO:  Battle of Ontario heating up again with Senators, Maple Leafs in playoff chase

The player has every right to ask for every penny he is worth and refuse to provide his services until he receives a contract that satisfies him. By the same token, the teams have every right to use the tools provided to them in the collective bargaining agreement to obtain contracts that fit into their structure. Nobody is wearing the black or white hats here.

But do you know how the NHL could avoid all of this? By giving arbitration rights to players coming off entry-level contracts. For reasons that continue to boggle the mind, the NHL seems to continue to view arbitration as some kind of boogeyman that should be avoided. But here’s the thing. It is the only vehicle by which you can guarantee that a contract will be resolved and it’s usually to the satisfaction of both parties. And if it’s not, the team has the right to walk away from the decision.

So if Athanasiou had arbitration rights this summer, either he could have taken the Red Wings to arbitration or the Wings could have taken him to arbitration. If Athanasiou truly believes he’s worth in excess of $3 million, he could have argued his case in front of a neutral arbitrator, one agreed upon by both the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association. And if the Red Wings really believed he was actually worth $1.9 million per year, they could have made their own case. The ruling likely would have come somewhere in the middle and everyone would have walked away happy and Athanasiou would be preparing to build on his promising season in 2016-17 instead or wondering whether he’s going to be playing in Detroit or Kazan.

But know this. The NHL has absolutely no appetite to expand arbitration rights to entry-level players. When asked NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly about it, here is what he said via email: “As a general matter, I would say that the League’s position on salary arbitration is and has historically been a negative one for various reasons. I don’t think the current situation you reference would change that view. Thus, I would doubt very much if we would ever agree to expand the salary arbitration rights currently provided for under the CBA.”

So there you have it. We’ll continue to go through this rather unnecessary dance every year with the names changing. Arbitration would force not only deals, but for both teams and players to be realistic in their contract demands. The uncertainty of arbitration would pressure deals into being made, they always do. But the league wants no part of this, so the waiting, and the hard feelings, continue on.

Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.