In what could potentially become a landmark case that puts a top prospect on the fast track to unrestricted free agency, the NHL Players' Association has filed a grievance arguing the Chicago Blackhawks failed to properly submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents by the 2009 deadline stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement.
The matter is now heading to an independent arbitrator, an NHLPA spokesman confirmed yesterday.
As many as six Blackhawks players were potentially affected by the grievance, including 2008-09 rookie of the year finalist Kris Versteeg and defenceman Cam Barker, a former first-round draft choice (third overall in 2004).
However, the Blackhawks made a pre-emptive strike to head off the effects of any potential ruling against them by signing five of the affected players - Barker, forwards Troy Brouwer, Ben Eager and Colin Fraser and defenceman Aaron Johnson - to new contracts yesterday, along with minor-league goaltending prospect, Corey Crawford.
Barker got a three-year, $9.25-million (U.S.) extension; Brouwer and Crawford received two-year deals; Eager, Fraser and Johnson got one year apiece.
At issue is whether the Blackhawks - who had recently lost their primary contracts man, assistant general manager Rick Dudley, to the Atlanta Thrashers - followed the proper protocols as mandated by the CBA in sending out qualifying offers to their restricted free agents, a mechanism that permits them to retain negotiating rights to the players.
The offers were reportedly mailed, not faxed or sent by registered courier service, to either the players or their agents.
In theory, if the arbitrator rules against the Blackhawks, Versteeg could become an unrestricted free agent, able to sell his services to the highest bidder, which would undoubtedly increase his bargaining position.
With the Blackhawks facing salary cap issues in light of their recent acquisitions Marian Hossa, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden via free agency, they might not be able to compete on the open market for Versteeg's services.
Chicago GM Dale Tallon's cellphone mailbox was full yesterday, and he could not be reached for comment.
However, in a statement relating to signing of Brouwer, Eager and the others yesterday, Tallon noted: "I am happy to have these five players back with us. They are quality individuals who played an important role with us last season and their talents are a big part of our goals for next season."
In asking that the dispute be settled in arbitration, the NHLPA issued a statement, saying: "In response to various media inquiries, the National Hockey League Players' Association confirms today that it has filed a grievance regarding the failure of the Chicago Blackhawks to submit qualifying offers to its 2009 restricted free agents prior to the deadline stipulated in the CBA. The NHLPA will make no further comment on the matter, which is now pending before the impartial arbitrator."