Salary Arbitration: Are They For Real?

Harry How

Matt Bartkowski has elected salary arbitration, but will he and the Bruins actually go to the hearing?

Over the weekend, the NHLPA announced that 20 players (including P.K. Subban of the Canadiens and Chris Kreider of the Rangers) elected salary arbitration with their respective Clubs. Among those in the list of 20 is Bruins defensman Matt Bartkowski.

The Basics

Bartkowski's election of arbitration comes at an interesting time for both himself and the Bruins. He's played 84 regular season games with the Bruins (along with 15 playoff games), and has amassed 175 regular season games with the AHL P-Bruins. The Bruins, according to GM Peter Chiarelli, currently have 9 NHL-"ready" defensemen and cannot go into the 2014-2015 season with that being the case (i.e. someone has to go). Bartkowski's report card indicated that while he was effectively an upgrade statistically compared to Dennis Seidenberg's performance prior to his injury, his performance regressed as compared to prior seasons with the Bruins. Furthermore, thanks to the "Big Mistake" syndrome, we recall clearly his playoff gaffes leading directly to goals scored against the Bruins and thus often relegate him to 3rd place out of the 3 up-and-coming "youngins"on defense for the Bruins (the other two being Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton). All of these things are probably a factor in the negotiations between Bart and the Bruins, which have probably contributed to their inability to sign a contract. Bartkowski appears to be at a crossroad in his career, with next season holding the potential to permanently define his future in the NHL. The question is, will that season be played in the uniform of the Black and Gold?

Given the issues above won't be changing anytime soon, I wouldn't be surprised if the hearing does take place. Within the next day or so, we should receive word as to the date of Bartkowski's hearing. Any salary arbitration hearing will be scheduled between July 20th and August 4th. Once that date has been set, the Bruins and Bartkowski's camp will have up until the moments before the hearing to negotiate a new contract. If not, the 90 minute hearing will go forward, with an arbiter determining a salary amount based on the evidence presented by Bartkowski and the Bruins during the hearing. It is interesting to note that the Bruins can only elect a one-year term for the SPC awarded to Bartkowski, given his current age (26) dictates that he will be eligible for Group 3 UFA status (reaching age 27 before June 30th) the following offseason (see Article 12.9(c) of the CBA for a full explanation of election of term in arbitration awards).

Good or Bad Omen?

The last time the Bruins actually went to an arbitration hearing with one of their RFAs was when Blake Wheeler elected arbitration during the summer of 2010 and was awarded a one year $2.2M contract. While we often hear of the supposed horror stories of arbitration hearings damaging relationships between Players and Clubs, Wheeler and his agent Matt Keator had nothing but positive things to say after the hearing:

"Before the hearing, I was anxious, obviously," Wheeler said. "You hear all the horror stories of different things that go on in those rooms. But once you're in there, hearing both sides being argued, it was handled extremely professionally. Nothing was said in the room that I didn't already know myself. There were no low blows or anything like that taken by either side. It was handled extremely well. When the hearing was over, I felt great about it. I was really happy to be through that process."

While no arbitration hearings were held the previous year (2013 offseason), there doesn't seem to be as many theatrics as were previously associated with salary hearings (such as Mike Milbury reducing Tommy Salo to tears), making them less of a fearsome endeavor. Still, perhaps a hearing between Bartkowski and the Bruins might not be as cordial?

Things to Remember

As the discussion has begun to shape around what the Bruins might do in Bartkowski's case, there are a couple of important points to remember as to what the Bruins can't do in this situation. The Bruins cannot:

  • Trade Bartkowski's rights at any point between now and the arbitration hearing. (Per the excellent primer on Salary Arbitration from J.J. from Kansas)
  • Walk-away from an arbiter's decision, if the decision is less than $3.5M in AAV (which, if the arbiter resides on Planet Earth, it will be).

Buy-out Window

As I was examining the Bruins salary cap situation after the Bruins failed to exercise a Compliance Buy-Out before the deadline of June 30th, I was given a brief amount of hope that the Bruins could still use a buy-out before the start of the 2014-2015 season. Paragraph 13 (c)(ii) of the Standard Player Contract allows for a Buy-out to occur outside the regular period in the event a Club enters into Salary Arbitration with a Player. My hope turned to sheer joy when Matt Bartkowski elected arbitration over the weekend. I thought, "OK, the Bruins will go through arbitration, accept the award (as is required), and execute a buy-out of Chris Kelly's contract as they should have done. Plus, by that time (August) he should be fully recovered and perfectly eligible to be bought out, even without his damn permission!!" I thought the starts were aligned for such a sequence of events to take place when I read Article 11.18 of the CBA which stated:
A Club shall not be entitled to exercise an Ordinary Course Buy-Out outside the regular period for: (i) any Player who was not on the Club's Reserve List as of the most recent Trade Deadline, or (ii) any Player with an Averaged Amount less than $2,750,000.
Umm...Chris Kelly's AAV is $3M...DESTINY!!!!

And then, my heart shattered into a thousand pieces when I read the following from the same section of the CBA while researching for this post:
In the event that a Club has only one salary arbitration hearing pursuant to Section 12.3(a) in a given League Year, such Club shall not be entitled to exercise such an Ordinary Course Buy-Out outside the regular period.
Oh fine, CBA. Never mind then. I'll just go back to dreading that the Bruins part ways with one of their current players. Because looking at the current salary situation is pretty depressing right now.

We Now Return to Salary Cap Hell...

...brought to you by Peter Chiarelli. Not signing Jarome Iginla didn't "solve" the Bruins salary cap situation, as people seem to be behaving. The Bruins still will be trading one or more of the current players on their roster before the start of the season - that is an inescapable reality. There are no other remedies left to the GM of the Bruins thanks to his expert handling of this situation. The Bruins currently have $1.64M in cap space, which rises to $5.667M when the Long Term Injury Exception is executed on behalf of Marc Savard. If you believe, as I do, that it will take roughly $5M combined to re-sign Torey Krug and Reilly Smith, the Bruins are left with $667K to fill 2 more roster spots (a wing on the Soderberg line and a wing on the Campbell line). Considering the minimum NHL contract is $540K, the Bruins would be mathematically unable to fill their roster. If the Bruins were to manage to squeeze Krug and Smith into the roster at approximately $4M combined (a accomplishment that would be so miraculous the Vatican ought to be called to investigate), the Bruins would have approximately $1.667M to fill the 2 aforementioned roster spots, to say nothing of the cost of carrying a 13th forward or the impact Bartkowski's salary award would have on the Bruins payroll.

I still have nightmares about Boychuk or Marchand departing the Bruins thanks to this situation, but I'll hope against hope that somehow Chiarelli will come to his senses and part ways with Gregory Campbell via trade (for "future considerations" of course) rather than trade one of his cornerstone pieces to make up for his missteps. Alas, time will tell.
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