A Common Thread with Past Devils Arbitration Results

As Chere reported yesterday, Travis Zajac has elected to file for salary arbitration for next season.   I noted the possibilities of what could happen and it's been a point of debate and concern both here and elsewhere, like the comments on Gulitti's post. (Aside: Gulitti actually responds in comments in his posts, so they are worth checking out.)  Personally, while I'm not saying this is the end of Zajac as a long-term Devil, there's definite reason to be doubtful.   However, I'm the one stressing perspective and such on ILWT, so I figure I should challenge my doubts.  I decided to search for past arbitration hearings the Devils had, see what the results were, and find out whether there's anything to be worried about.

From what I found, the Devils didn't have too many arbitration hearings but they all involved players that you know and they all have something in common that, unfortunately, justifies my concern.

Let's start with a former infamous Devil and a current Devil: Claude Lemieux and Brian Rolston.  You know the former from his absolutely ridiculous 1995 Playoff Run (13 goals, 4 very frustrated forwards) and as a POAT (Pest of All Time, up there with Esa Tikkanen).  You know the latter as Brian Rolston - the man who's going to be on the second line in 2009-10, but who knows where right now.   Anyway, in 1999, Rolston filed for arbitration as a RFA with the Devils. According to the NY Times, Rolston won the hearing:

Forward Brian Rolston was awarded a new two-year, $2.77 million contract after an arbitration hearing yesterday. Rolston, who made $750,000 last season, was seeking a one-year pact worth $1.7 million while the Devils offered $2.08 million over two seasons. His new pact will pay him $1.3 million in 1999-2000 and $1.47 million in 2000-2001.

HOWEVER! Astute Devils fans are already talking to their computer screens, "But John! Rolston wasn't on that 2000 team that won the Stanley Cup!" And you're right.  He and his arbitrator-awarded contract was traded in a deal with Colorado, bringing back the legendary agitator to the Swamp. Ralph Vachianno of the NY Daily News had the whole story back in November 1999.  I don't bring this up to get all nostalgic about another shrewd Lou move.  Here's the relevant bit from the article that explains why Claude wasn't a Devil for long after 1995:

"Well," Lemieux said yesterday, "sometimes, as you get older, you realize you can never say never."

Certainly not after yesterday's shocker, when the Devils shipped forward Brian Rolston to Colorado and brought back Lemieux. And what better way to solve the franchise's postseason problems than with the return of the best postseason player they ever had?

But still, it couldn't have been an easy deal for Devils GM Lou Lamoriello to make. There were several bridges burned between the franchise and the MVP of its 1995 Stanley Cup run during a nasty contract dispute that summer. It began when Lemieux declared for free agency, claiming the contract he agreed to hadn't been faxed by the Devils to the league as required before July 1.

The dispute went to arbitration and the Devils won, but Lemieux was traded to Colorado within hours in a three-team deal. Yesterday, Lamoriello said the dispute was behind both of them and "There is certainly nothing hanging or nothing we feel uncomfortable with."

So far we have Lemieux that went to arbitration, lost, and was traded shortly thereafter.  Rolston went to arbitration, won, and got traded later that season. 

The common thread though isn't that Devils that go through arbitration aren't Devils for long though. This brings us to 2001 - the Bobby Holik arbitration hearing.  Jason Diamos of the NY Times had a complete article about the aftermath of that hearing back in August 2001.  On the surface, Holik didn't get what he wanted.  And Holik wasn't particularly shy about his feelings on arbitration in general.

''The number is just a number,'' Holik said. ''But the arbitration process itself has changed the way I look at a lot of things. I've learned how they look at me. Every player should go through it and find out that this is a business and nothing else.''

When asked if he felt like a piece of property, Holik said: ''Yes, of course. They make you look like you're not worth as much as you think.'' And while Holik said he harbored no animosity toward the Devils and their president and general manager, Lou Lamoriello, he will most likely be playing elsewhere after this season.

''Some people would take it personally,'' Holik said. ''I don't take it personally. They treat it as a business, so I'll treat it as a business. They're looking for the best possible labor at the lowest possible cost, and I want to maximize my earning potential. The way I'll do it is by becoming an unrestricted free agent.''

If you ever wanted proof at how damaging arbitration is to a player-organization relationship, then Holik's experience is a good place to go. Incidentally, despite his own blunt (as usual) admission that he felt like he was going to be traded, as reported by Darren Everson of the NY Daily News, Holik was not traded.  However, Holik kept true to his word, sought out deals on the open market, and ultimately decided upon that infamous $9.5 million/year deal with the New York Rangers.

However, the next one to go through the arbitration ringer wasn't Gomez, but Scott Niedermayer in the summer of 2004.   Niedermayer not only demanded significant money for his talents - and few could argue that - but what he was awarded tied a record high in arbitration hearings with the NHL.  Dave Caldwell has the short briefing at the NY Times back in August 2004 and amazingly, it appears that the Devils got the benefit by being closer to the lower end of the value offered:

Niedermayer, who made $4 million last season and was voted the Norris Trophy winner for the first time as the N.H.L.'s top defenseman, becomes the Devils' highest-paid player. Defenseman Scott Stevens will make $6.92 million, and goaltender Martin Brodeur $6.89 million.

Still, the arbitrator's award was closer to the $6 million that the Devils had offered than to the $9 million Niedermayer sought.

Yet, the Devils, Neidermayer, or the NHL didn't have a next season. So Neidermayer became an unrestricted free agent, thought about his decision for quite a while, and ultimately headed west to Anaheim.

Lastly, we come to Scott Gomez. After a monster 2005-06, Gomez felt it was time to get paid and felt he was worth more than the Devils were offering.  The Devils, already up against cap constraints at the time, did not get any good news from this hearing.  As Mike Kerwick reported, via USA Today, Gomez was awarded $5 million and the cap only became more of a concern:

In a decision that might price Scott Gomez off New Jersey's roster, an arbitrator awarded the restricted free agent forward $5 million for the upcoming season Tuesday night.

Gomez and his agent/father Carlos Gomez asked for $6.5 million, but the $5 million award more than doubles his 2005-06 salary of $2.2 million.

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello had the option to decline the award, allowing Gomez to become an unrestricted free agent, but he said Tuesday he is accepting the arbitrator's decision.

"We're going to accept the award," Lamoriello said. "We're not going to walk (away)."

The challenge for Lamoriello now is trying to fit Gomez's salary under the NHL's $44 million payroll. Lamoriello would not say whether the $5 million price tag would force him to trade Gomez before the start of the regular season. Lamoriello traded forward Jeff Friesen before the start of the 2005-06 season in order to get under the league's then-$39 million cap.

...

So does Lamoriello have room for Gomez?

"I'm not going to get into any of that," Lamoriello said. "The only thing I mentioned, on day one, we have to be at a certain number and we will be there on day one."

After an entire season of looking for any kind of relief and the Devils resorting to playing with a shortened roster on nights where too many players were injured, I believe Lou learned the importance of cap space that season (to say the least).  Gomez, on the other hand, did what Holik did 4 years earlier.  He became an unrestricted free agent, fielded offers from multiple teams, and settled on the giant pile of money offered by the NY Rangers.

Let me sum it up all for you:

Claude Lemieux filed for arbitration, "lost," and was immediately traded to another team.

Brian Rolston filed for arbitration, "won," and was traded early in the 1999-2000 season.

Bobby Holik filed for arbitration, "lost," and left the Devils when he became a free agent.

Scott Niedermayer filed for arbitration, "lost," and while he didn't play the next season, also left the Devils when he became a free agent.

Scott Gomez filed for arbitration, "won," and left the Devils when he became a free agent.

The common thread is that each of these players weren't Devils for very long after their hearings.  Be it after their awarded deals ended or even during their deals.  It didn't matter who "won" or "lost," they did not last for long in New Jersey.  None of those five stuck around after their awarded deals - either by their own choice or Lou's choice.

That is why I am so concerned about Zajac filing for arbitration.  This brief history has shown that those who file for arbitration are not going to be Devils for a long time.  One big difference here is that Zajac is young enough such that he can't become an unrestricted free agent even after an awarded deal - he has to wait until he's 27.  That said, if Zajac comes out of the hearings thinking along the lines of Holik did, then he may not want to remain in NJ.

Let us hope that history does not repeat itself in the case of Travis Zajac's arbitration hearings.

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