If history is any indicator, of the 44 players who filed for salary arbitration Thursday, only a handful of them will actually end up in front of an arbitrator and no more than a couple, if any at all, will go the distance and end in a ruling.
Arbitration works for both the teams and the players, ironically because it is something they both want to avoid at all costs. And that point, plus the benefits of arbitration, could not have been more apparent than when the Detroit Red Wings signed Andreas Athanasiou to a two-year deal worth $3 million a season.
This time last year, Athanasiou was in almost precisely the same position he found himself this summer, with one notable difference. In 2017, Athanasiou was coming off a 19-goal season and was a restricted free agent. But he did not have arbitration rights. An ugly, ugly negotiation ensued between the two sides that resulted in Athanasiou missing training camp and the first 10 games of the season before signing a one-year deal worth $1.4 million that left both sides bitter and upset with each other.
Contrast that to this summer when, by all indications, the Red Wings were prepared to take another tough stance on negotiations with Athanasiou. The difference this time was that Athanasiou had arbitration rights, a right he would have almost certainly elected to pursue when the deadline hit at 5 p.m. on Thursday. The same player and team that went to war last summer managed to somehow find a way to make it work five days into his tenure as a restricted free agent.
There is no way this deal gets done amicably without the threat of arbitration. Both sides would have dug in to entrenched positions and another stalemate would have been inevitable. But the specter of going before an arbitrator forced both sides to be realistic in their demands and, as a result, they both came away happy. Even if Athanasiou had opted for arbitration or if the Red Wings had decided to take him through the process, the result still would have been a contract and the player would not have missed training camp during an important point in his career development.
Most of the 44 players who filed on Thursday did so basically as an insurance policy against contract talks going off the rails. But the best thing about the process is that it forces both sides to be reasonable and, by virtue of the fact that they are arguing their cases before a neutral party, ensures that neither side leaves the process feeling as though it was not treated fairly. In fact, it is literally the fairest way to resolve contract disputes.
Which begs the question, why would the league not want to ensure that every restricted free agent is eligible for salary arbitration? The league, for reasons that seem unclear, still seem to view arbitration as some kind of bogeyman. But the reality is that it would be best for everyone if all young players, including those coming out of their entry-level deals, to have the arbitration lever available to them.
Let’s take the Red Wings as an example. They still have to sign Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha to deals, but neither side has the option of going to arbitration because the players are too young. The Red Wings essentially view Larkin as about a $6 million-per-year player and Mantha somewhere in the $3-million range. If the two sides were faced with the possibility of going through arbitration, those deals probably would have been done by now. As it is, the Red Wings face the uncertainty of locking horns this summer with two of their top three scorers. And with neither player having any form of leverage beyond withholding his services during training camp and beyond, it sets things up to get ugly if the two sides can’t come to a deal.
Not that arbitration can’t be ugly, too. In fact, when Mike Milbury was GM of the New York Islanders, he once made goalie Tommy Soderstrom cry because he ripped him so mercilessly during the hearing. The modus operandi for the team during arbitration is to do just that, to try to prove to the arbitrator that the players isn’t worth what he is asking. Is there potential for bad feelings? Absolutely.
But that’s what makes arbitration work so well. Nobody, neither the team nor the player, wants to go through that process. In the end, though, the ugliness caused by arbitration can be avoided. As Athanasiou and the Red Wings proved last summer, it can’t be avoided in negotiations.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.