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Clarke MacArthur #41 of the Buffalo Sabres skates against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum on January 16, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2010 Getty Images)
Clarke MacArthur #41 of the Buffalo Sabres skates against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum on January 16, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2010 Getty Images)

James Mirtle

A new twist in NHL's arbitration plot Add to ...

It was one of the NHL's first arbitration cases of the year, pitting 25-year-old winger Clarke MacArthur against the Atlanta Thrashers late last month.

The two sides had failed to make progress in negotiations leading up to the July 21 hearing, and Atlanta's recent acquisition of Andrew Ladd had, in management's mind, made MacArthur expendable.

When it came time to meet with an arbitrator, the Thrashers simply asked for the award to be presented immediately, based on the player's demands, so they could then walk away from the contract.

That's how a third-line forward who had 35 points landed a $2.4-million (all currency U.S.) award, one the hockey world has been puzzling over ever since.

"We said, you know what, maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing if he gets this silly award," Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley said. "We kind of encouraged it."

In their current form, the NHL has had arbitration cases ever since the 1994 collective agreement, and they are designed to produce a settlement when negotiations between restricted free agents and their teams fail. A neutral arbitrator is appointed, both sides present their arguments at a hearing, then a ruling is given, one that often splits the difference.

There is a long history of contentious cases - including one that reduced New York Islanders netminder Tommy Salo to tears - but few summers have produced as many odd results as this one.

In addition to MacArthur, the Chicago Blackhawks walked away from the $2.75-million award given to their Stanley Cup winning netminder, Antti Niemi, on Monday.

A day later, the Buffalo Sabres bought out rookie Tim Kennedy's $1-million deal, handing a hometown hero $333,333 to leave after a difference of less than $50,000 had separated them in negotiations prior to arbitration. (Teams are only able to walk away from awards worth more than $1.61-million.)

Three of the five players who went to arbitration this summer, in other words, will be playing elsewhere in 2010-11, an anomaly given there had been only six walk-aways from roughly 100 awards in NHL history prior to this season.

Player agents, however, say the system is working as intended.

"I've always argued that if you go to a hearing, it's actually the breakdown of the process," said Ian Pulver, an agent who used to handle arbitration cases when he worked for the NHL Players' Association. "The fear or the risk of having another person determine a player's value, on either side, is what brings a settlement."

Pulver said it was a positive sign that 26 of the 31 players who filed for arbitration this summer signed before their hearing. "That's indicative of a process that's working," he said.

Many general managers feel arbitration has become too much of a win for players, especially in an environment like this summer where more than 70 unrestricted free agents remain unsigned. The Blackhawks, for example, walked away from Niemi because veteran Marty Turco was willing to sign for less than half of Niemi's award.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier said part of the problem stems from depth players being paid less under the salary cap as stars get a larger share of the pie.

"The arbitration system has largely been built over the years on a pricing system for these players that, if it's not obsolete, it's going to be obsolete," Regier said. "[Free agents]are available on the market for a price determined by the market and not by an arbitration system that's running a little behind."

That can lead to awards that aren't always in line with the economic realities of the league.

"My theory is very simple," Dudley said. "If I put the player on waivers tomorrow, would he be claimed? If the answer's no, then in all likelihood, that's a contract I wouldn't want."

Like many players and executives, Dudley has his share of bad memories from past arbitration cases. One he remembers vividly is that of now retired forward Shawn McEachern, who in 1998 was struggling to come to terms with the Ottawa Senators.

Dudley had been named Ottawa's GM shortly before the hearing and mostly watched as an interested observer.

"We tried to reduce him to rubble," Dudley said. "I really wasn't involved. [Current Pittsburgh Penguins GM]Ray Shero at the time was my assistant, and he did a masterful job. But boy oh boy, it's hard to watch a player that you wanted in your organization go through that.

"Shawn McEachern, who is a very good guy, he was visibly shaken by the whole process. But that's the way you do things. You have to because the other side's going to say Shawn McEachern's the reincarnation of Guy Lafleur.

"You almost have to balance it out. It's a very, very difficult process to me. It's not a nice thing."

Regier saw the fallout of arbitration firsthand this week as upset fans protested Kennedy's buyout in Buffalo. Sports radio callers have ripped the Sabres the past three days, and one local pub has a sign in its window calling for the team to "Bring Back Kennedy."

"You need to do what you think is right as an organization, unfortunately," Regier said. "He's a great kid, by the way. He's a terrific young man."

After the initial shock at becoming the first player ever bought out after an arbitration award, Kennedy has moved on. His agent, Allain Roy, said several teams expressed interest immediately and that he expects him to sign soon.

"I can't predict the future, but Tim's walking away with almost $350,000 in his pocket and is a free agent to sign with one of four teams," Roy said. "So I think he's in a pretty good situation.

"In arbitration, you're always going to have somebody walking away feeling like they're the winner and the other side the loser. There's no perfect process as far as being able to bring negotiation to an end. I think it's a very efficient process."

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