One by one, 19 of the 20 players with arbitration dates settled their affairs this summer, with each avoiding the nasty process of sitting down with an arbitrator in the middle of the off-season.
On Tuesday morning, however, the biggest name on the list in Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber went to his hearing, becoming the only player to do so this year and one of the few ever to do so in a team-elected arbitration case.
It could be, in short, bad news for the budget-conscious Preds.
Of the last 10 arbitration cases where the hearing actually took place, nine of the players involved ended up playing for another team after that following season.
The 10th was Washington Capitals defenceman Shaone Morrisonn, who lasted only two years after a contentious arbitration hearing before moving on.
History could easily repeat itself with Weber, who can become an unrestricted free agent as early as July 1, 2013, barring a change in the UFA age in the NHL’s next collective bargaining agreement.
While details of what took place in Weber’s hearing on Tuesday in Toronto remain behind closed doors, the cases tend to get ugly, with teams trying to justify putting forth as low a figure as they can and the player’s agency countering with a sky-high number.
An arbitrator generally splits the difference, giving an award somewhere in the middle.
Part of the trouble for the Predators with Weber is in just how little there is to criticize their franchise player for, as he’s emerged as one of the top five defencemen in the game and narrowly missed out on winning the Norris Trophy in June.
Even so, the two sides were millions apart on a new deal, with the Preds wanting to lock Weber up long term and Weber wanting to get a better idea of both where the team and CBA are heading before committing to Nashville into his 30s.
Even after Tuesday’s hearing, they can still negotiate a new contract, but it must be finalized before the arbitrator reveals his one-year arbitrator award, which is due 48 hours after the hearing ended.
Weber, 25, is coming off a deal that paid him $4.5-million (all currency U.S.) the past three seasons, but he’s due for a substantial raise given he has more goals (55) than all but Mike Green and is tied for sixth in points (144) among defenceman over that span.
Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, playing on a six-year deal worth $6.5-million a season, is considered one comparable that will be used by the player’s side in arbitration. Phaneuf has the fifth highest cap hit for a defenceman next season, behind only Brian Campbell, Zdeno Chara, Jay Bouwmeester and Dan Boyle.
Adding intrigue to the whole situation is the fact Weber dropped high-profile agent Don Meehan in favour of Titan Sports Management less than two months ago.
According to several sources, Titan – run by two young agents from Cranbrook, B.C., in Kevin Epp and Jarrett Bousquet – offered Weber a rate less than half of Meehan’s Newport Sports to represent him.
Two of Weber’s friends and Titan clients in Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges and the recently retired Scott Niedermayer both vouched for the agency, which helped him decide to make the switch.
After Tuesday’s developments, there’s now speculation around the league that if Weber wants to become a UFA as soon as possible, he can elect to go to arbitration again next summer, take another one-year deal and hit a home run as one of the biggest names available in 2013.