If you haven't noticed, the UFA market has gone pretty stale. The big names are off the board, and a particularly weaker UFA crop has gotten to the slimmer pickings portion of the meal. Teams still have some opportunities to take fliers on higher risk players, but there aren't big enough names left to cause much of a splash.
Over the holiday weekend three Rangers filed for salary arbitration: Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. With the free agent market quiet and trade market even quieter, I think now is the perfect time to go over what to expect from this process moving forward.
First of all, I want to dispel a common misconception: Teams and players can still negotiate leading up to arbitration, and the two sides can come to an agreement before the hearing date. It happens all the time.
If you need a reminder, arbitration is a process certain RFAs are eligible for. For those who file, a court date is set with an arbitrator to come to an agreement between the two parties (the team and the free agent) on the player's salary. Both parties go into the meeting with a desired salary for the player and argue their case. Yes, teams are required to give their reasoning (bringing up all negative aspects of the player) in front of the RFA; which sometimes causes bad blood between the two sides.
An arbitrator settles the player's salary within 48 hours of the hearing, and the team then has the right to approve the salary or walk away from the player. If the team walks away the player becomes a UFA. One other note: An arbitrator can never award a player a salary less than 85% of what they're currently making.
As I said above, these situations are often resolved before the two sides get to a hearing. Due to the fact the two sides have to argue against each other in front of each other, arbitration is often seen as a last resort. In some situations it does help teams and RFAs bridge a gap they wouldn't otherwise be able to do. In others it's seen another brick on the wall of betrayal.
Last summer, the Rangers narrowly avoided salary arbitration with Zuccarello. At that point, Zuccarello hadn't had a true audition with the team on a full-time basis, and he ended up taking a smaller contract for a shorter term. This year, there's little to no chance of that happening, with Zuccarello reportedly requesting a salary worth $5-million annually.
To this point, there have been no reports about Brassard's desired salary, although it can be assumed he wants north of $4-million.
Kreider will end up being the most interesting case of the three. The Rangers -- and mainly Glen Sather -- have had a long tradition of setting a precedent for RFAs coming off their ELC: A two-year bridge deal with a deeper payday later. This has caused some bad blood, most notably with Brandon Dubinsky who saw the negotiation as an insult and harbored his hurt feelings through the next contract the two sides negotiated years later. Most recently Derek Stepan held out over his contract dispute, which was eventually resolved before the season began.
It's a negotiating strategy where the Rangers have a ton of leverage and a clear precedent set. Sometimes a player (Ryan McDonagh) bucks the trend, but he is the exception, not the norm. For the Rangers it's a way to make sure they're keeping their younger talent cheaper while the team has the leverage. For the player, it's a frustrating reality they have to live with.
Whether or not Kreider will buck the trend is a different matter entirely, but my guess is he won't. It should, however, be noted the Rangers were able to lock McDonagh up on a long-term deal for an amazing term because they didn't give him a bridge deal, but again, he's the exception not the norm.
Hopefully this clears up some of the thoughts and concerns about arbitration. Remember, this is all part of the process, it's each side trying to gain as much leverage as they can during a negotiation.
Sometimes business is business. Arbitration is business.