Commentary

Avoiding arbitration at all costs

Despite recent hearings that favored management, the most effective factor of the arbitration process for the Players Association remains the threat of what might happen if it gets that far, writes Terry Frei.

Updated: August 9, 2007, 4:53 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

If there were NHL standings for arbitration, this week's Mike Cammalleri decision -- $6.7 million over two years -- would go under "W" for management and "L" for the players.

If the agent for the Kings' winger, former NHL forward Mike Gillis, were a coach, he would have yanked his starting goaltender and allowed some of the boys to infer that they should focus on "sending a message" in the third period -- right up to the 14:59 mark.

What's funny about that is even though we're two years into the salary cap age, it's reasonable to portray a $3.35-million cap number and effectively a 100 percent raise over the $1.6 million he made last season, even for a top young forward, as a resounding victory for the Kings -- and, indirectly, everyone else in the league.

Sean Avery
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesAvery, who was looking for $2.6 million, was awarded $1.9 million for the 2007-08 season.
Gillis probably was wondering: "Where was Kevin Lowe when we needed him?"

Sean Avery's arbitration award with the Rangers -- a one-year, $1.9-million deal -- also was far more in tune with what the team was offering than what the player was seeking (in this case, $2.6 million), and it's a significant triumph for management when it credibly can claim victory in the two highest salary decisions.

Despite the Cammalleri and Avery decisions, the most effective component of the arbitration process for the player's association is still the threat of what might happen if it gets that far.

Daniel Briere's award of one year, at $5 million, last summer was a daunting benchmark for the NHL that still was being felt this year -- and the ripple effect, while not completely definable or traceable, will continue.

So the justified fear is that the high-end deals for players in certain tiers, regardless of how they came about (free agency; arbitration; quick and mutual agreements; or rock, paper, scissors), are the standards.

Thirty players were scheduled for arbitration hearings.

Twenty-three of them reached agreements with their teams before the hearing could occur.

The players whose deals were decided through arbitration are so few, they can be listed here. All except for Cammalleri were awarded one-year deals: Avery, the Islanders' Trent Hunter ($1.55 million), Dallas' Antti Miettinen ($885,000), Tampa Bay's Ryan Craig ($850,000), Florida's Steve Montador ($800,000), and Washington's Brooks Laich ($725,000).

Beyond Cammalleri, Avery and Hunter, the differences amount to pocket change and precedents only for the lower echelons of rosters.

Although management sought, and won, the right to opt for arbitration in the new collective bargaining agreement, the "threat," especially for the higher-profile names on the potential docket, still effectively is one-sided.

Agents and players aren't scared to death to let it go to an arbitrator. They aren't thinking that maybe the fellow will crunch the numbers and decide that the player should be thanking his lucky stars to even be in the league and the team's offer should just be rubber-stamped.

Sure, that can happen, but even the offer is designed to be "reasonable" enough to avoid excessively insulting a player who is wanted back, and the "downside" -- whether it be for Ray Emery, Marcel Hossa or Henrik Lundqvist, who settled after being scheduled for arbitration -- isn't all that toxic.

As mad as Cammalleri and Gillis might be in the wake of the decision in Toronto, it's not as if the former Michigan Wolverine needs to be standing at the bottom of the Harbor Freeway freeway ramp with a cardboard sign asking for contributions to make up the difference. He is scheduled to get $3.1 million in the upcoming season, $3.6 million in 2008-09.

Avery came out of it with a good deal, too.

Of course, the way this works, by the time the Rangers had finished emphasizing the negative components in the much-traveled Avery's game, it wouldn't have been out of line for an arbitrator to ask: "You sure you want this guy?" Those "knocks" against him are a lack of discipline that translates to stupid penalties, out-of-control running around and even a demeanor and track record that can turn off some teammates and be distracting to the team concept.

Whether this is significant or otherwise, the Rangers have exactly zero Quebec-born players on their current roster. So at least in the dressing room, it doesn't matter if Avery's apology for his belittling of French-Canadian players two years ago is considered sincere.

The fact that his "energy" and maddening style of play are probably more distracting for the opposition than his own team is worth something, as were his bursts of production down the stretch with the Rangers last season. After all, New York was 17-6-6 with him on the roster, and while the Rangers' surge certainly wasn't his doing, he was a factor. Furthermore, his combustibility and edge could be even handier with Chris Drury and Scott Gomez added to the mix in New York.

So chances are that after the gloves were dropped in arbitration, if anyone can shrug it off, Avery can. It was a tough scrap, you tip your hat, it's part of the game, move on, give it 110 percent, take it one game at a time, just try and finish your checks, and maybe even say that you understand that things said in the heat of battle shouldn't really matter.

In this case, the Rangers have to be hoping that the "knocks" they delivered on his game at least serve a message-sending purpose.

There's a line between being a positive energy guy and an idiot, and Avery too often has skated across it in the past.

So arbitration still can serve a lot of purposes.

But mostly, it's something to be avoided.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

ALSO SEE