Assessing this year's arbitration decisions

A lot of our attention this summer has been spent on restricted free agents and arbitration. With over 30 players having filed for arbitration, there was potential for a lot of drama between teams and players. As is generally customary, arbitration is the last resort in contract negotiations and the majority of players settled into contracts before reaching a hearing. There were five players that did go all the way to court and make a snap judgment as to who came out on top.

Antti Niemi – Chicago Blackhawks

Last year, Niemi made $800,000 on the way to helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. He took the starting job away from incumbent starter Cristobal Huet and provided stability in goal for a team that needed that support. The Blackhawks wanted to sign him for $1.5 million, Niemi wanted $4 million, a difference that could cause consternation between the two sides down the road.

Decision: $2.75 million

The arbitrator split the difference between what each side was hoping for. Chicago is still in a salary cap bind and yet to decide what they’ll do with Niemi. Regardless of what they do, the Hawks had to figure they’d be in this position as it was highly unlikely that the arbitrator would side with them for the amount they were looking for. Whether they walk away from the award or keep him and adjust their roster after the fact remains to be seen.

Winner: Push

Ideally the salary works for the Blackhawks, but it’s still not small enough for them so they won’t have to tinker with the roster. Niemi gets a raise on what he was making before but didn’t get what he was looking for salary-wise. Plus there’s the possibility the Hawks walk away from the decision.

Blake Wheeler – Boston Bruins

Wheeler was making a base salary of $875,000 which then got boosted by nearly $2 million in bonuses to $2.825 million on the cap. Wheeler had a down season compared to his rookie campaign scoring fewer goals and points, all of which you would think would lead to a reduced reward in arbitration.

Decision: $2.2 million

Wheeler gets a raise on his base salary but less money overall. The Bruins are up against the salary cap themselves but get a bit of a break since Marco Sturm will likely start the year on LTIR thus knocking his salary off the books in the meantime. Given Wheeler’s age and what he’s done in two seasons it’s tough to get too grumpy about this if you’re the Bruins.

Winner: Boston

It’s tough to argue against this if you’re Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. You get to have a lower cap number for a guy who is (or at least should be) one of your top offensive contributors. The Bruins also get to test Wheeler to see if he can bring the scoring back up before they potentially go through this whole thing again next year.

Clarke MacArthur – Atlanta Thrashers

MacArthur made $1.4 million last season with Buffalo and Atlanta and scored 16 goals and 19 assists, good for 35 points. He logged good time averaging just over 15 minutes a game and making $1.4 million to do that isn’t such a bad way to make a living. Atlanta didn’t have much in the way of worry when it came to salary cap space so you’d think that with things going all the way through to an arbitration hearing there was a distinct difference in opinion over what he should make.

Decision: $2.4 million

A one million dollar raise for the nearly 25 year-old winger doesn’t seem entirely out of place, if he was making just six figures before. Seeing as how he was making $1.4 million already, however, makes this decision stand out in a baffling way. Suffice to say, the Thrashers walking away from MacArthur’s award was the least-surprising choice of the summer.

Winner: Atlanta

While the Thrashers are still looking to reach the salary floor, paying a potential third-line left wing $2.4 million to do it sets a dangerous bar for the the team when negotiating with other players. Clarke MacArthur will land a job elsewhere for sure, but it just won’t be for $2.4 million a year. By walking away, the Thrashers also eliminated MacArthur from being a comparable deal for other forwards who went to arbitration. Blake Wheeler won’t be sending Thrashers GM Rick Dudley a fruit basket this year.

Tim Kennedy – Buffalo Sabres

A 24 year-old winger who got his first real taste of the NHL this season. Kennedy spent most of the year on the third and fourth lines averaging just over 12 minutes a game. Kennedy scored 10 goals and had 16 assists. He had a base salary of $635,000 and made $850,000 after bonuses were factored in.

Decision: $1 million

You could almost hear Dr. Evil delivering that decision but truth be told, while it’s a raise on the base salary it’s not that big of a raise over all, going up just $150,000. About the only thing to worry about here for Tim Kennedy is potentially entering a brand new tax bracket.

Winner: Push

Sure, having his salary be officially a million dollars looks daunting but it’s not actually daunting in and of itself. I’m sure Kennedy appreciates the extra money.

Jannik Hansen – Vancouver Canucks

Hansen was a fourth line player for the Canucks last year playing in just 47 games last year and racking up nine goals and six assists while averaging just over 12 minutes of ice time per game. He made $550,000 last year putting him just above the league minimum salary of $500,000.

Decision: $825,000

A huge coup for Hansen to win this much. For a guy that wasn’t seeing a lot of playing time nor producing very much on the ice to get this much money in arbitration was a bit startling. It’ll also set the expectations a bit higher for him next season. Perhaps he might even play in all 82 games.

Winner: Jannik Hansen

Without a doubt Hansen is the runaway winner in this case. While it’s unclear how much he asked for and what the Canucks were looking to keep him at, there’s no doubt that Hansen getting a 50% raise is an immediate lightning rod for comparisons for players like him that might get their courage up to challenge their team for more money. The salary cap strained Canucks can’t be happy with even the comparatively slight raise to what amounts to a depth role player.

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    Looking to make the leap: Haydn Fleury

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    This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

    The Carolina Hurricanes have built an impressive stockpile of young defensemen, arguably the best in the NHL.

    Looking at their current NHL roster there isn’t one defensemen under contract for this season that is over the age of 26, while three of their best — and youngest — are all signed to long-term deals. Not only are they young, they are also already really, really good and just need a more stable goaltending situation behind them to help the Hurricanes take a big leap forward this season.

    For as good and promising as that group already is, there is another young player in the pipeline that hasn’t even had a chance to make an impact yet in 2014 first-round pick (No. 7 overall) Haydn Fleury.

    The 21-year-old Fleury is coming off of his first year of pro hockey, spending the 2016-17 season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. Other than missing part of the season due to injury it was mostly a successful pro debut for the young rearguard, appearing in 69 games and scoring seven goals to go with 19 assists and showing considerable improvement down the stretch following a slow start.

    The logjam of young defensemen already in Carolina is going to make it tough for Fleury to crack the lineup, but the No. 6 spot on the blue line does seem to be up for grabs between him and Klas Dahlbeck. Even if he doesn’t grab that spot at the start of the season it seems reasonable to assume that at some point during the season — whether it be due to injury, a trade, or just a lack of performance from somebody else — that he is going to make his NHL debut.

    When he does it will be just another promising young player added to a defensive core that already boasts Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Given the contracts Faulk, Slavin and Pesce are signed to, and the fact Hanifin and Fleury are still on their entry level deals it gives the Hurricanes a ton of flexibility when it comes to constructing their roster. Any of them would be attractive pieces in trade talks to make improvements elsewhere, or they can be the foundation of the defense — and the team itself — for the next six or seven years for a remarkably affordable price.

    Scott Darling will be the key to the Hurricanes’ season

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    This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

    A few numbers to keep in mind about the Carolina Hurricanes as they prepare to enter the 2017-18 season:

    • Over the past three seasons only one team in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings — has allowed fewer shots on goal per game than the 27.3 allowed by the Hurricanes. An impressive number, especially given how young their defense has been during that stretch.
    • Despite those low shot totals the Hurricanes are only 19th in the NHL in goals against. The are the only team in the top-eight in shots against that finished outside of the top-12 in goals against and the only one that has not made the playoffs at least once. Two of those teams have made the Stanley Cup Final at least once. Four have made the the Conference Finals at least once.

    So how is a team that is so good at suppressing shots so bad at preventing goals and winning games?

    Goaltending.

    They are hoping that newly acquired goalie Scott Darling, getting what will be his first chance at a full-time starting job, will be able to help fix that issue.

    Over that same three-year stretch mentioned above, Hurricanes goalies — a revolving door made up of Cam Ward, Eddie Lack, and Anton Khudobin — have not managed a save percentage that placed them higher than 26th in the entire league in any one season. That is a pretty significant problem and it has been, perhaps, the single biggest factor in the team’s lack of success on the ice. No one position in hockey can impact the fortunes of a team more than a goalie. Carey Price has taken an average Canadiens team and made them a contender. The opposite has been happening in Carolina.

    Let’s just look at this past season as an example, when the duo of Ward and Lack finished with a .904 mark, with Ward (playing in 61 of the games) leading the way at .905.

    If the Hurricanes had been able to replace Ward’s performance with a league average number (in the .912 range) in his 61 starts the Hurricanes would have allowed 12-14 fewer goals right off the bat. A league average duo across the board would have cut close to 20 goals off the board over 82 games. That is a potentially significant swing and Darling is the newest goalie that will get a chance to make it happen.

    Darling spent the past three seasons serving as Corey Crawford‘s backup in Chicago and playing at a level that made him one of the league’s best No. 2 goalies. Among the 58 goalies that have appeared in at least 60 games over the past three seasons Darling’s .923 save percentage has him sixth in the NHL behind only Carey Price, Matt Murray, Antti Raanta (another backup getting a chance to start this season), Devan Dubnyk and Braden Holtby.

    The test for him is whether or not he can maintain that level of play — or anything close to it — when he is counted on to be the No. 1 goalie that gets the top teams every night.

    If he can be, the Hurricanes are going to have a great shot to end that eight-year playoff drought given how good their defense already is and how many young, talented forwards they have in their lineup.

    If he is not, it will probably be more of the same — a promising young team that just seems to keep falling short in the regular season.

    Poll: Will the Hurricanes be a playoff team this season?

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    This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

    It has been eight years since the Carolina Hurricanes qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Since then they have gone through three coaches, numerous roster constructions and a still ongoing rebuilding effort.

    For the past three or four years it seems as if the Hurricanes have entered the new season as a popular sleeper pick to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and things never quite seem to work out for one reason or another (recently goaltending has been a big reason). Those expectations are back once again this season.

    They had a pretty strong finish to the 2016-17 season with an 11-5-5 mark down the stretch and have an impressive young core of players in place, mostly on their defense that is stacked with a ton of already good — and very underrated — players all under the age of 24, with several of them now locked in to long-term contracts. Up front Jeff Skinner is one of the NHL’s best goal scorers, while Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask are looking like two of the best young forwards in the league. They attempted to complement that young core this summer with some pretty significant veteran additions, including Justin Williams, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger and Scott Darling.

    Their young players are still at an age where they have room to improve, and they made some significant additions around them (and do not forget Jordan Staal, who is still a really good player even if he carries a huge contract). Will those improvements be enough to help the Hurricanes make up eight points in the standings and get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season?

    Under Pressure: Bill Peters

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    This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

    There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Bill Peters is a pretty good hockey coach. In his three years behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench his teams have always played hard, they have been competitive, they have seen great growth from their young core of players during their rebuild, and they have consistently been one of the top possession teams in the league. There are a lot of positives and a lot of reasons for optimism for what might be there in the coming seasons.

    One thing there has not been: A trip to the postseason. There hasn’t been one in Carolina since the 2008-09 season as three different coaches have been unable to reach the playoffs during that stretch. So it hasn’t necessarily been just a coach thing.

    It doesn’t seem that Peters is starting the season on the hot seat, and general manager Ron Francis recently gave his coach a vote of confidence heading into the season saying exactly that.

    “I think Bill Peters is one hell of a hockey coach, so I would not put him on the hot seat and in that category. Not at all,” Francis said this week, via the News & Observer. “This is guy who has shown he’s a hell of a coach with a very young team. I don’t think you hold him accountable for missing the playoffs the last couple of years, based on the situation we were in and what we were trying to build.”

    All fair points, and he specifically points out the playoff drought and what the team was going through.

    But professional sports is still a bottom line business, and eventually results will begin to matter. Especially after the offseason the Hurricanes had that saw them bring in Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk and goaltender Scott Darling who can hopefully fix the team’s biggest and most glaring weakness in most recent years (the goaltending position). Combine those additions with a promising young core, led by Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm and that defense and expectations are going to start to build.

    Peters has also been given a leash that most NHL coaches do not get. Over the past 30 years I found only 12 other examples of coaches that coached a single team to three consecutive non-playoff seasons.

    • Three of those coaches (Terry Crisp, Curt Fraser and Rick Bowness) were coaches of literal expansion teams that were just entering the league.
    • Seven of them were fired just after the third non-playoff season.
    • One of them (Ron Wilson) was fired late in what would have been the fourth consecutive non-playoff season.
    • Wayne Gretzky was given four consecutive non-playoff seasons in Arizona before he was no longer behind the bench. His replacement, Dave Tippett, was given five consecutive non-playoff seasons after some early initial success with the team. That run ended this offseason when he mutually agreed to step away from the team.
    • Lindy Ruff made it through three non-playoff seasons in Buffalo in the early 2000s and managed to stick with the team for another eight years. But his playoff drought followed four consecutive playoff seasons, including three years where the team advanced to at least the second round and one year where they won the Eastern Conference.

    The bottom line with Peters is this: A good coach that probably isn’t to blame for the team’s recent lack of success, but given the shelf life of coaches in the NHL and how few of them get to stick around for this many seasons without the playoffs, and the offseason additions made by the front office, the team is going to have to start winning. Soon.