Arbitration is one of the most difficult aspects of free agency.
Walking into a room with your employer and watching them list the reasons why they don't believe they should pay you more is never easy, and can often lead to some strained feelings.
This year's arbitration class is among the most talented in recent memory. And with that talent, comes intrigue.
Let's take a look at the five most interesting arb cases to come this off-season.
Matthew Tkachuk, LW - Calgary Flames
2021-22 Stat Line: 82 GP, 42 goals, 62 assists, 104 points, 17:54 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $7,000,000
There's a good chance Tkachuk never even makes it to his arbitration date, given the recent reports he wants out of Calgary and the two sides are working on a trade.
If Tkachuk does get dealt, his arrival in his new digs will likely be followed immediately by a lucrative, eight-year contract extension.
But if he doesn't...
There's also a chance that Tkachuk's public desire to leave Calgary puts the Flames at a disadvantage when it comes to leverage, with inquiring teams trying to squeeze them for their star winger.
If the Flames don't like the packages out there, they could actually hold on to Tkachuk until, at the very least, his contract situation is settled for next season. And if that happens, and these two sides are forced into a room to argue with each other about why the other should not get what they want, that could make for a pretty awkward situation.
Ethan Bear, D - Carolina Hurricanes
2021-22 Stat Line: 58 GP, 5 goals, 9 assists, 14 points, 16:05 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $2,000,000
Bear has all the tools to be an impact defender at the NHL level: he's young, shoots right, has shown the ability to move the puck and drive possession, and has above-average mobility on the back-end.
But the 24-year-old has struggled to put it all together to this point in his career, never locking down a full-time spot in Carolina's top-six and ultimately ending up as a healthy scratch for the entirety of the playoffs.
That's what the Hurricanes will argue when the two sides meet in arbitration next month, setting the stage for perhaps the most intriguing case of the summer.
Based on the past two seasons alone, the Hurricanes wouldn't be entirely off base, either. Bear wasn't a regular contributor for them when it mattered most, and his time in Carolina thus far has featured nothing but injuries and inconsistency.
But Bear's relatively high 2021-22 salary coupled with nearly 200 games of NHL experience and a 2019-20 season in which he was a mainstay of the Oilers' top-four give him some ammo to fight back and possibly salvage a decent number for himself once the dust settles.
Bear is talented. No one is arguing that. He just needs to show it over an extended period of time.
Jesse Puljujarvi, RW - Edmonton Oilers
2021-22 Stat Line: 65 GP, 14 goals, 22 assists, 36 points, 16:14 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1,175,000
Despite what certain sections of the hockey world might tell you, Jesse Puljujarvi is a good hockey player. Very good, in fact. The former third-overall pick has all the makings of a valuable asset: he's strong defensively but packs an offensive punch, drives possession quite well, and has a versatile skill set that makes him capable of filling various roles.
Not to mention, Puljujarvi also put together a decent little season for himself in 2021-22, scoring over a half-point-per-game on a contending Oilers squad while bouncing in and out of the top-six.
Working against Puljujarvi, though, is his track record.
The 24-year-old has never played an entire 82-game schedule to this point and has just two seasons of 60 GP or higher. Factor in his brief departure to Finland in 2019-20 and his largely inconsistent play before that, and the Oilers could build a strong case against giving Puljujarvi a significant raise -- for this season, at least.
All indicators point towards Puljujarvi being a key contributor moving forward -- either for the Oilers or someone else.
Andrew Mangiapane, LW - Calgary Flames
2021-22 Stat Line: 82 GP, 35 goals, 20 assists, 55 points, 15:43 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $2,425,000
The very thing that made Mangiapane such a fun story last season might be what works against him come arbitration time.
After never hitting the 20-goal mark in his entire career, Mangiapane burst onto the scene in 2021-22 with a breakthrough campaign to remember, exploding for 35 goals and playing a key role in the Flames' best season in recent memory.
Is it an anomaly, though? That's what the Flames will argue.
Mangiapane had topped out at just 18 goals prior to last season, seemingly benefiting from Calgary's deeper roster and improved surrounding talent. Working in Mangiapane's favor, though, is that the numbers don't exactly paint him as a regression candidate. While his 18.9 percent shooting percentage last year seems high by most standards, Mangiapane's luck was actually pretty much on par with his career average for the part, even taking a dip from the previous year when he shot a whopping 19.8 percent.
Factor in how the Flames just lost one franchise face and are about to lose another, and management might just want to give their fans something to hold onto by re-signing their 25-year-old sniper to a reasonable new deal.
Jesper Bratt, LW - New Jersey Devils
2021-22 Stat Line: 76 GP, 26 goals, 47 assists, 73 points, 17:26 TOI
2021-22 Cap Hit: $2,750,000
Like Tkachuk, there's a good chance Bratt never makes it to his arbitration date.
The 23-year-old has been popping up in trade rumors for the better part of the summer now and seemed increasingly likely to get dealt two weeks ago at the draft. That didn't end up happening, but based on all that's out there, both Bratt and the Devils just can't seem to find common ground on an extension, paving the way for the talented young Swede to find a way out of town.
The only thing is that Bratt filed for arbitration this week, meaning that inquiring teams could simply wait until his contract status is determined for next season before selling the farm.
In that case, Bratt would indeed head into an arbitration cage match with the Devils after all -- while holding all the leverage, too.
I mean, come on. The guy scored nearly 30 goals and flirted with a point-per-game pace last season on a terrible team and before celebrating his 24th birthday which has yet to come, making just under $3 million in the process, too. No matter how the Devils try to spin it, Bratt has grounds to demand a raise of gigantic proportions, which his soon-to-be-former club can only hope won't scare away any suitors.
It shouldn't, really. Bratt is very good and deserves to be paid like it. End of story.