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The death of the salary arbitration hearing

Sean Leahy
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Blake Wheeler and the Winnipeg Jets avoided arbitration Friday and came to terms on a five-year, $33.6 million contract for the 26-year old forward. Coming off a lockout-shortened seasoned where he recorded 41 points, it’s a fair deal for both sides.

With the Wheeler case closed, that leaves three arbitration hearings still scheduled -- Mark Fraser, Mats Zuccarello and Zach Bogosian -- and given how things have gone this summer, we should expect three contract agreements before both sides reach an arbitrator. It’s a growing trend where teams and players want to avoid arbitration. Just read the cases of Sean Avery and Shaone Morrisonn for the player’s perspective as to why they’d love to hammer something out before sitting in a conference room while their general manager tears them to shreds, sometimes bringing them to tears.

For teams, the salary cap plays a role in their desire to come to a solution not involving an arbitrators decision. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams cannot walk away from decisions unless they are at least $3.5 million. If you’re a GM, you’d rather hammer out a deal that fits into your cap structure and allows you to continue to build going forward.

This is what Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had to deal with this summer. During the opening of the free agency period on July 5, the Jets stayed quiet, making just a few minor moves the day after. Cheveldayoff was facing five arbitration hearings with Eric Tangradi, Bryan Little, Wheeler, Paul Postma, and Bogosian, who is still scheduled to have his on Friday.

Spending around $12 million for next season to keep four of the five allowed Cheveldayoff to fill out his roster and stay under the cap ceiling by roughly $7 million, with Bogosian left.

The number of arbitration hearings scheduled every summer has been dropping over the years. Teams want to lock up their young stars and others, who may not want fit the star mold, see it as an opportunity to cash in after a strong season, forcing their teams to extend a multi-year offer to accept a raise via the arbitrator.

Former Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars assistant GM Frank Provenzano, writing for ESPN Insider (sub. required), sees the writing on the wall for the future of arbitration:

Can salary arbitration return to its former prominence as a significant offseason element of the NHL contract landscape? Maybe. If the cap fails to grow, more premier players may use arbitration as the route to pry dollars out of teams with limited cash and/or cap flexibility. Arbitration could also serve the neighborhood of players on the bubble of top-nine forward/top-four defenseman status as they attempt to leverage themselves up the NHL financial ladder to a rung just below the walk-away threshold.

The most likely possibility, in my opinion, is more of what we are seeing right now. Fourth-line forwards, bottom-pair defensemen and players trying to solidify a breakthrough year of regular NHL roster time will probably continue to be the ones using the cement of salary arbitration to shore up their shaky NHL performance foundations. Settlements will continue to be the dominant norm, since the legal costs of $40,000-$50,000 associated with bringing a case to hearing simply aren't worth it when fighting over $200,000 dollars instead of $2 million.

And no one wants to join the club of having been made to cry after listening to the blunt honesty of your boss. Right, Tommy Salo?

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy

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