Welcome to arbitration

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:58 AM ET

The NHL shut down for an entire season in a nasty fight over cost certainty and franchise stability. But today, little more than one year from the date of the settlement, there is reason to wonder if the troubles aren't starting all over again.

The very league that rolled back salaries, put in cost constraints, capped spending and fought for the little guy is being undermined by its own general managers and by a collective bargaining agreement that was supposed to protect both the competent and the incompetent.

But who, exactly, is being protected now?

Daniel Briere, as is his right, took the Buffalo Sabres to salary arbitration. He happens to be a good player on a good team, not a great player, not a star. But, courtesy of the arbitration process, his salary has jumped from a relatively inexpensive $1.9 million US to $5 million for the coming season.

Or, perhaps, more should the Sabres exercise their right and walk away from the awarded settlement.

Last year, Briere's salary was cut, like everyone else's, by 24%.

Next year, he's in line for a raise of 163%.

Using a different vehicle, isn't this how the NHL got itself into trouble in the first place?

Mike York is, at best, an average player. He doesn't make teams better. He isn't coveted by many. He's just a guy who puts a little dash on a roster.

Last year, he earned $2 million, which some might consider overpaid when compared with a Darcy Tucker, for example. The other day, an independent arbitrator awarded York a salary of $2.8 million.

He took a 24% hit last season, gained 40% for the coming year and didn't do anything important in between.

This is the new math of what is starting to look like the old NHL. Only the vehicle for escalation has been altered.

When there was no salary cap, teams like the Maple Leafs and Red Wings and Stars could buy anything and everything they wanted, and that's how Bill Guerin wound up as one of the highest paid players in hockey.

Now that there's a salary cap in place, free agency spending is almost reasonable -- okay, $5 million for Pavel Kubina is not reasonable but was deemed necessary. The new salary by-play is arbitration.

And some -- not all -- general managers saw this coming. Some screamed throughout the lockout that arbitration had to disappear for the CBA to have the long-term affect it needed. But instead, negotiators put in an arbitration process in which the team offers one salary, the player requests another, and the arbitrator has to choose one or the other.

No middle ground allowed.

The one catch that was supposed to work was this: If the team didn't like the number, it could walk away from it, turning the player over to free agency.

In theory, this might have made sense.

Tell that to the Buffalo Sabres this morning, who have to determine what to do with Briere and about seven other players who are headed to arbitration.

You see, left to his own devices, Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier probably could have made a reasonable deal with Briere. But that's where the sting comes in.

You're not left to your own devices.

So, the minute the geniuses who run the Chicago Blackhawks overpay for Martin Havlat -- a player comparable to Briere -- the cost is no longer in Regier's control, or budget.

According to the rules of arbitration, free-agent signings cannot be used as comparable salaries for those going through the process. For example, a defenceman going to arbitration can't use the Zdeno Chara contract as a comparison, but a forward could use the new Alex Tanguay deal in Calgary.

What this CBA does is protect the league and its franchises, but not the makeup of rosters, if you understand the distinction. The league will tell you this is working properly.

In Buffalo and Phoenix and New Jersey and even with the lunatic fringe on Long Island, many will disagree.

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