In its original CBA proposal, the NHL sought to eliminate salary arbitration. If successful, under a new CBA, this could result in an increase of offer sheets to star free agents.
The main reason why there were so few offers sheets during the previous CBA to restricted free agents was because, in every case except one, teams matched those offers. The Edmonton Oilers’ successfully signing winger Dustin Penner away from the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 was the sole exception.
Another reason was restricted free agents who either filed for salary arbitration, or were taken to salary arbitration by their teams, were ineligible to receive offer sheets.
For some savvy general managers, this proved an excellent tactic to prevent a key RFA being signed by a rival club to an expensive offer sheet, thus preventing said rival from driving up the cost of re-signing that player.
This summer, 16 NHL players filed for salary arbitration. Last year, 23 players filed. In 2010, it was 32 players; in 2009 it was 20; in 2008, it was 16; in 2007, 28; and in 2006, a whopping 69 players filed for arbitration.
In all but a few cases, those players agreed to new contracts with their respective teams without going before an arbiter.
As that tends to happen so often, it’s likely a significant reason behind the league’s attempt to eliminate salary arbitration. Since most cases rarely go before an arbiter (as both sides wish to avoid what is often a nasty affair in which the team argues against why a player is worth what he’s seeking), it almost seems pointless for the players to have arbitration rights in the NHL.
The players, of course, see it differently. Arbitration has been a key leverage tool for them in contract talks with their respective teams. They know in most cases the general managers don’t want to go through the arbitration headache anymore than they do. Players and their agents use arbitration to set a deadline toward getting a new deal in place, rather than have contract talks drag on throughout the summer and possibly into training camp and preseason.
Assuming the NHL gets it way, and the players right to salary arbitration is eliminated, it could prove a Pyrrhic victory for the owners. Without the protection of salary arbitration, more key RFA players will become tempting targets for offer sheets.
Of course, if there is language written into the next CBA either eliminating offer sheets or putting in stricter guidelines, or if the supposed “unwritten rule” about offers sheets is honored among GMs, then offer sheets could continue to be a rare occurrence.
Given how short-sighted NHL owners tend to be with their CBAs, and how greedily competitive many of them are (aided of course by savvy general managers and their capologists), it wouldn’t be surprising if offer sheets occur with far more frequency if arbitration is eliminated in the next CBA, as well as a potentially larger number of those offers going unmatched.
After all, as history has proven under the previous two CBAs, the owners just can’t help themselves.