Friday, July 7, 2017

A look at Buffalo's three arbitration cases

Published by, 7-6-2017

A total of 30 NHL players elected for arbitration yesterday. If a contract can't be finalized before their scheduled hearings, both sides sit down and plead their cases to an arbitrator who makes a binding decision on salary. Hearings are scheduled between July 20 and August 4 this year and most are settled beforehand. In many cases player selected arbitration is a way to ensure a contract negotiations don't drag on all summer.

If the two sides do end up at the arbitrator's table things can get contentious as players and their agents espouse their virtues while teams highlight the players' shortcomings. CSN Mid-Atlantic's Chuck Gormley reminded us recently that in 2002, after the Brendan Morrison hearing, then Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke had this to say about the process, “After inviting us into the alley, you can't complain if you get kicked in the groin.”

Oh the pugnacity.

Some other examples of rough negotiations pointed out by Gormley, 2015 piece:

--in 1997 then NY Islanders GM Mike Milbury reportedly drove goaltender Tommy Salo to tears by telling his agent he was one of the poorest conditioned athletes he’d ever seen.
--in 2003, the Phoenix Coyotes called Mike Johnson the “worst forward in the NHL”
--during the Canucks/Morrison hearing metnioned to above, at one point during their briefing the Canucks likened Morrison to a mouse who was carried across a river by two elephants, linemates Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund.

In player elected arbitration the team can walk away from the deal if they get a result that's not to their liking. Since 1995 when the system was set up only a handful of players were left at the altar. The first was in 1999 when Boston said no to a $2.8 million award to Dmitri Khristich. Goalie Anti Niemi's case was a big one in 2010 as the cap-crunched Chicago Blackhawks walked away from that $2.75 million decision. Neimi's was one of three cases that year where teams balked as the Atlanta Thrashers said no to former Buffalo Sabre Clarke MacArthur's award and the Sabres themselves walked away from an award to Tim Kennedy.

That was the second time Buffalo had scoffed at a decision. The first time was in 2006 when they said no to JP Dumont's $2.9 million award. Just prior to that then GM Darcy Regier accepted the $5 million an arbitrator awarded forward Daniel Briere which put the Sabres in a bit of a cap-crunch of their own.

The Sabres have some flexibility under the cap for the 2017-18 season, but not too much. As outlined yesterday, if salaries for their roster free agents remain on the conservative side they'll be $8.5 million under the NHL's cap ceiling this year. However, they also need to take into consideration the possibility that $5.5 million could be paid out in performance bonuses to Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart which could reduce it to about $3 million.

Buffalo has five arbitration-eligible restricted free agents with two of them--Zemgus Girgensons and Evan Rodrigues--not headed to arbitration. Girgensons' eventual salary will affect the Sabres cap situation while Rodrigues is probably headed to Rochester for another year of seasoning. That leaves us with the three who are headed to arbitration.

F, Johan Larsson

Why he chose this route is a head-scratcher, unless he simply wants to get this over with so he can enjoy the rest of his summer. Larsson is a good forward and a real good bottom-six center when he's on his game. On a contender he'd be a pesky fourth-line center and he may end up there for Buffalo this year dependent upon how the roster pans out. It's really not a good time for him to be headed to arbitration as he hasn't played since suffering multiple upper-body injuries sustained when he crashed into the boards on December 31 in Boston. Larsson's statistical highs came the prior season as he had 17 points on a career-high 10 goals in 74 games.

Speculation:  Larsson was qualified for just under $1 million by the Sabres to retain his rights. Call it an even $1 million and be done with it.

D, Nathan Beaulieu

In the first trade of his GM career, Jason Botterill acquired the Montreal defenseman for a third round er. The 24 yr. old Beaulieu is a former first round pick (17th-overall) who spent five years with the Canadiens working his way up the ladder. Last season he was placed on the top-pairing with Shea Weber but was eventually dropped to the third pair. Beaulieu is an all situations defenseman who was fifth in overall time on ice for the Habs defensemen last season, sixth in even strength ATOI, although his 28 points (4+24) tied him for third in scoring amongst Montreal's defensemen.

Speculation:  Beaulieu made $1 million last season. It's a new team and a new system where he may be able to really ramp up his production but we're not sure how this will all play out. A $1.5 million deal gives Beaulieu a nice 50% increase and keeps Buffalo happy during this feeling out period.

G, Robin Lehner

This is the big one for Buffalo. The Sabres picked up goalie Chad Johnson to be Lehner's backup, but the good thing about Johnson is that he can play the role of a team's No. 1. It's not ideal, but he can make it work. Lehner is coming off of an escalating three-year deal that averaged $2.25 million/season but paid him $3.150 million last year and that will be their jumping off point as he proved to be a legit NHL starter. In 59 games for the Sabres last season Lehner posted a 2.68 GAA and .920 Sv% while facing the third most shots in the league (1,910.) Montreal's Carey Price set the new bar for goalies as his new deal pays him $10.5 million AAV and others above Lehner in save percentage have cap-hits in and around the $4.2M (Craig Anderson, OTT) to $5.3M (Jimmy Howard, DET) range

Speculation:  One can see Lehner and his agent expecting to land in that range while the Sabres probably want to max out at $4 million or so. Perhaps $4.25 million will be the number they settle at, but it will be interesting to see what Botterill does if an arbitrator puts the number at $5M.

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