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Payback Add to ...

Mike Comrie had 30 goals for the Phoenix Coyotes this past National Hockey League season. In a week's time, it's virtually assured he'll score again come salary arbitration.

Most every NHL player who has gone to arbitration to plead his worth has come away a big winner. Florida Panthers defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, who will be 23 in September, was yesterday's lucky recipient of a cash windfall. He made just under $946,000 (all figures U.S.) last season. This season, thanks to an arbitrator's call, he'll make $2.1-million. And young Mr. Bouwmeester isn't even the biggest winner on record this summer.

That honour falls to Daniel Brière of the Buffalo Sabres. His salary spiked to $5-million from $1.9-million. An impressive jump for a guy you'd hardly call a franchise player, which is why there are many around the NHL who are shaking their heads and wondering if this isn't the start of something bad.

Remember what forced the NHL into a one-year labour stoppage -- escalating player costs that led to a new collective agreement complete with a salary cap. What we're seeing this summer is a significant rise in salaries through a means that is working exceedingly well for the players.

A record 69 NHL players filed for arbitration when previously the number had been in the 20s, with roughly 10 going through the entire process. Although some teams have worked vigorously to avoid arbitration (see the Edmonton Oilers' signing of Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll and Ales Hemsky to new deals), others, such as the Coyotes, know that for all their efforts, they're about to take it on the chin, in the wallet or both.

"They're both deserving of salary increases, but how far do you go to reward non-playoff years?" Phoenix general manager Mike Barnett recently said of Comrie and forward Ladislav Nagy. "We've done everything we can to get them both signed except meet their contract expectations. We've explored term and schedules of payment. In the end, we are simply too far apart."

If the team doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can walk away. The New Jersey Devils had until later today to decide what to do with Scott Gomez, who was awarded a one-year, $5-million contract on Tuesday. However, TSN reported yesterday that the Devils have accepted the arbitrator's decision and will sign Gomez, even though they could have cap concerns at the new $44-million limit. They could have attempted to trade him, or they could have let him walk as an unrestricted free agent.

The problem with letting a player walk is that a team gets nothing for its efforts or its asset. It's also part of the new collective agreement that a team can turn its back on an arbitrator's decision only twice in three years, which is why there are NHL GMs, assistant GMs and coaches who don't like the business of salary arbitration.

Getting those NHL types to go on record and voice their displeasure is not easy. The public response is that the players are still entitled to only 54 per cent of league revenues and that if player salaries get too unwieldy, it simply means a higher percentage of those salaries will end up in escrow -- to protect the owners from once again bungling their finances.

Beyond that, some NHL GMs said it was too early to be too critical of the year-old collective agreement; that no system is perfect and that the best teams are the ones that do their homework and manage their budget.

But off the record, there are concerns about salary arbitration. One is that the exercise has everything to do with statistics -- the more goals and assists, the more money. Another has to do with the fact the arbitrator can be fired by the player or the team and that the arbitrator can pick what the player wants, what the team has offered or even come up with his own number. That, said one assistant GM, is wrong.

"Since the arbitrator can be fired by either side, what happens is he always ends up with a middle point. That drives the player to go in high and the team to go in low," the source said. "In baseball, it's either/or. That drives the team and the player to go with a more realistic offer or even lead to a settlement before arbitration."

"Salary arbitration is an inflationary process," said a different team official. "That's why you don't see it in the National Basketball Association or the National Football League [both of which have salary caps]"

So if arbitration is so bad, why did the NHL agree to it after humbling the National Hockey League Players' Association in their labour showdown? Again, the NHL had it carved in stone that it could spend only 54 per cent of its revenue on salaries. It also wanted to build a partnership with the people it had been feuding with before the lockout. The players were insistent on salary arbitration and they got it.

Now we know why they wanted it so badly. Salary arbitration is their right. They can request it. They can manipulate it. They can also win at it. And these days, the winnings are sizable.

amaki@globeandmail.com

JAY BOUWMEESTER

$945,630

Salary last season (all figures U.S.)

$2.1-million

Salary for 2006-07 season

DANIEL BRIERE

$1.938-million

Salary last season

$5-million

Salary for 2006-07 season

SCOTT GOMEZ

$2.204-million

Salary last season

$5-million

Salary for 2006-07 season

RYAN MALONE

$750,000

Salary last season

$1.3-million

Salary for 2006-07 season

 

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