Salary arbitration: It's the last bastion of sanity in the post-lockout, post-season NHL universe, where shock, awe and questionable paydays trump all.
So, why are league followers bagging on it? Consider us as confused as Kevin Lowe's hairstyle.
Arbitration is a controlled environment where everything comes out in the wash. If a player has issues, they will be brought up to ensure a truthful and accurate picture is presented. While the environment is not completely insulated from outside influence (i.e.: comparisons to similar players with desirable contracts), we know there is supposed to be a sense of rationality.
It's not pleasant to experience the types of topics brought to the table -- how teammates think your maturity level requires elevating, or being reminded how often you failed to score on a breakaway last season. However, the NHL is a business. The renegotiation of a contract is hardly the time for coddling.
It's difficult for an outsider to get worked up over a player who's worked over in an arbitration hearing. Even the most menial of players garner six-figure salaries. Whether those feelings carry over into the next season and erode a player's "team mentality" within the franchise depends on the person. One would hope a player could maintain a level head in the face of criticism, and remember that the Stanley Cup is not awarded to an individual. That being said, the cynics will claim that harping on a player holding a post-arbitration grudge is a fool's errand, insisting that NHLers play for themselves and the paycheque.
The most important and appealing aspect of arbitration is the use of an outside source to determine a player's worth. The arbitrator enters without an agenda -- no fan or franchise ties, and no urgency to outbid another GM. Arguments are heard and a one or two-year contract is handed out (after which a team can accept or walk away). No muss, no fuss.
In other words, it's a near-opposite approach to a restricted free agent being tendered an offer sheet.
Look at it this way: Do you believe Lowe's decision to sign forward Dustin Penner to a five-year, $21.25-million US offer sheet wasn't rooted in desperation?
We've all heard claims of the Oilers' Teflon-like nature -- no one wants to stick around. Allegedly, the only way Lowe can combat this problem is to pillage other teams' RFAs, in the hope that the franchises in question won't match the offers.
As for players' true worth, we're left to wonder how much it factored into the equation.
Let's not forget about the revenge factor. A player left with his nose out of joint from a sour arbitration can be dealt with in one form or another. A bitter, rival GM could make your life hell.
It almost makes the idea of facing an arbitrator look desirable, doesn't it?
Salary arbitration isn't an enjoyable or perfect system. But in an era where many are wondering how much has truly changed since the free-for-all spending years prior to the lockout, you have to be grateful for an oasis where rational heads are encouraged and allowed to prevail.