Arbitration is a balancing act for GMs

The National Hockey League is in the midst of its annual salary arbitration hearings, which began July 20 and will conclude July 31.

Of the 20 players who filed for arbitration this summer, half — including Anaheim’s James Wisniewski, Atlanta’s Colby Armstrong, Edmonton’s Denis Grebeshkov, New Jersey’s Travis Zajac and Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec — reached agreements on new contracts with their respective clubs prior to their hearings, in some cases days before.

Don’t be surprised if most of the remaining players follow their example, continuing a post-NHL lockout trend.

As the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle recently observed, last year only two players, Florida’s Ville Koisinen and Washington’s Shoane Morrisonn, went through the full process.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, restricted free agents and the teams have the right to take each other to salary arbitration but both sides prefer to avoid the process.

During the arbitration hearing the player’s agent attempts to land a significant raise by playing up his client’s abilities while the team’s management offers counter-arguments as to why he’s worth less.

The arbiter then makes a decision — usually arriving at a figure between what the two sides sought — and awards the player a one- or two-year contract depending on when the player becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Arbitration is a bruising procedure for the player’s ego and the player almost always departs via the UFA market regardless of the salary award.

Of the players headed to arbitration this year the most notable are Minnesota’s Josh Harding, Detroit’s Jiri Hudler and the Rangers’ Nikolai Zherdev, whose hearings are slated for July 29, 30 and 31, respectively.

Harding, 25, made an average of $725,000 on his last contract. Given his solid numbers as a backup and ability as a potential starting goalie he could seek up to $2 million per season.

The Wild are believed in the market for a scoring forward and it’s been rumored they might dangle Harding, who has little chance of becoming a starting goaltender while backing up Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota.

It’s unlikely the Wild would walk away from any arbitration award for Harding as that would make him an unrestricted free agent, robbing them of a potentially valuable trade chip.

Expect them to either re-sign Harding before his hearing or accept the arbiter’s award.

Hudler filed for arbitration several weeks ago, then stunned the Red Wings by signing a contract with Moscow Dynamo of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

He may have screwed up that contract however by taking the Red Wings to arbitration as the NHL has filed a complaint with the KHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation, arguing his arbitration filing signaled his intent to play in the NHL — thus keeping him contractually bound to the Wings.

KHL president Alexander Medvedev said his league would abide by the arbiter’s decision, which could nullify Hudler’s KHL contract and keep him in the NHL, although the Wings would then have to scramble to find the salary cap space to absorb his new contract. They won’t reject the award and allow Hudler to walk away to the KHL.

Finally, there’s Zherdev, the subject of frequent trade speculation in the New York media.
It’s been reported the Rangers could walk away from whatever award Zherdev receives in arbitration, making him an unrestricted free agent eligible to sign with any NHL or KHL team.

If the reports are true the two sides are unlikely to reach an agreement before his July hearing. If the Rangers exercise their option to walk away from the award, which will come within a week of the hearing, Zherdev could be a UFA early next month.