NHL salary arbitration hearings have been few and far between this summer, and there's a reason. When cases go to a hearing, they can often get ugly, as players, agents and teams fight for dollars under the salary cap.
Washington Capitals defenceman Shaone Morrisonn is the only player who's been through the process this off-season. He was awarded a one-year, $1.975-million (all currency U.S.) contract last Saturday after a hearing last Thursday in Toronto.
According to arbitration documents obtained by The Globe and Mail, the Capitals offered several less than flattering assessments of Morrisonn, a stay-at-home defenceman who was fourth on the team in ice time last season. Calling him "one-dimensional," Washington argued that Morrisonn received substantial playing time in 2005-06 and 2006-07 on a weak team as a result of being "at the right place at the right time."
Morrisonn's agent, Mark Stowe, said negotiations before the hearing were extremely contentious.
"It was great to have arbitration so we could exercise his right to get a deal done," Stowe said yesterday. "It would have been a different situation if he didn't have those rights. In other words, a holdout. In my opinion, he'd probably be sitting there a long time."
The Capitals said the hearing went as planned.
"It's a very truthful, open, honest dialogue," assistant general manager Don Fishman said of the process. "We try to treat it very professionally, we don't make it personal and the player doesn't hold back in terms of touting himself and we don't hold back in terms of presenting a frank, complete picture of the player. I don't think it's hard. I think the players understand it's business."
Even so, the business of arbitration is a big reason why 11 of the 15 players who filed for arbitration this year signed before their hearings. Florida Panthers defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, who had rejected several long-term offers from the club, was the latest to avoid arbitration when he inked a one-year contract worth about $5-million yesterday.
New York Islanders goaltender Tommy Salo had the most infamous hearing in the summer of 1997. Salo, the Islanders' starting goaltender at the time, left the proceedings in tears after being ripped by general manager Mike Milbury in what was called "the most horrific character assassination ever seen in an arbitration."
There are only three restricted free agents still on course for an arbitration award this summer: Ottawa Senators forward Antoine Vermette, Detroit Red Wings forward Valtteri Filppula and Nashville Predators defenceman Ville Koistinen. Koistinen's hearing was yesterday morning, while Vermette and Filppula are scheduled for Thursday and Friday. Decisions are awarded within 48 hours of the hearing's completion.
In the Morrisonn case, the Capitals were seeking a salary of $1.1-million in arbitration and used six other young defencemen as comparables: Milan Jurcina, Josh Gorges, Lukas Krajicek, Mark Stuart, Garnet Exelby and Mike Komisarek.
On behalf of the player, the National Hockey League Players' Association asked for $2.8-million and used Trevor Daley, Tim Gleason, Fedor Tyutin, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov and Komisarek as comparisons.
In response to the club's filing, the NHLPA argued that Morrisonn played a key role in the team's Southeast Division championship under new coach Bruce Boudreau. Even though Morrisonn has had only five goals and 37 points over 234 games the past three seasons, the union said his contributions in his own zone and killing penalties justified a salary of nearly $3-million.
Unlike in major league baseball, where arbitrators choose between the salary proposed by either the player or his team, NHL arbitrators can use any salary they deem appropriate.
Ultimately, arbitrator Terry Bethel sided slightly with the union position in the Morrisonn case, awarding a contract that was almost directly between the figures sought by the sides. Bethel indicated the NHLPA's comparison players were more appropriate, given Morrisonn's experience and role with the Capitals, singling out Daley and Gleason as suitable matches.
As a result of Morrisonn's new contract, the Capitals are about $1-million over the $56.7-million salary cap and will likely need to make a trade to free salary space before the fall. Washington has a logjam up front with Nicklas Backstrom, Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander all expected to vie for ice time at centre and will be relying on rookie Karl Alzner, the Capitals' first-round pick (fifth overall) in 2007, to make the team in order to fill out the blueline.
Stowe, meanwhile, said he wouldn't be surprised to see Morrisonn back in arbitration again next season.
"He's got one more year [with Washington]and he's probably going to be in a situation similar to Bouwmeester in that he'll have arbitration rights for one year," Stowe said. "He's going to have to decide if he's going to go long-term there or a one-year deal.
"We're happy we had the right, we've got a deal and we're going to move on."