Negotiations Have Failed (Edit: Or not!)

Edit: Then again, we could have been wrong. 1 year, 1.95 million.

With the cancellation of negotiations scheduled for this evening between GM Scott Howson and agent Marc Levine, it seems that the Blue Jackets' streak of 10 years without having to go through salary arbitration will be snapped on Wednesday morning. The two sides have scheduled one last negotiating session before the arbitration hearing opens, but given the comments from both camps that include phrases like "The 11th hour" and "unless either side is willing to make a significant move", it seems extremely doubtful that the gap between the two positions will be bridged over coffee and croissants.

Barring a flinch from one side of the table, it seems likely that both sides will step into arbitrator Margaret Brogan's office at 9:00am sharp. 

Lee Auer of The Jackets Blog took an excellent look at what both camps are likely to be using for comparable salaries and players. The Dark Blue Jacket has made a post that I'd consider required reading on how the club likely views Stralman's hearing, and where a replacement may already be waiting in the wings.

Given that most of us in Columbus aren't terribly familiar with what the process involves, I'd also suggest this awesome arbitration guide from suite101.com as well. (Take special note of the acceptable evidence category How the player contributed to team’s success or lack thereof in the most recent season.)

Now, what do I think will happen...?

The clock is ticking, and there are exactly three ways this is going to go.

1) Stralman Blinks - Yes, I said that Stralman blinks. Not "someone" blinks. If there is one thing I have decided over the past several years of observing this team, it is that I wouldn't dare play poker against Scott Howson. A man who is incredibly effective at hiding his emotions and presenting a glassy calm attitude even when the world around him is going straight to hell in a handbasket, he keeps his cards close to the vest, and with the possible exception of the Tarnstrom trade, I've yet to see anyone get into a staring match with him and win.

Howson made his position perfectly clear when he asked for a 1 year ruling: "We'd like to keep you. But I don't really need you." If Howson thought Stralman was a vital piece of the puzzle, he'd have requested a two year award to guarantee that the Swede would be skating in Union Blue next year no matter what. The message to Stralman is that he can be replaced, and if he needs further reasons for concern, he just needs to look around the NHL to see what the free agency pool looks like. After the initial frenzy cooled off, only three defensemen have been picked up as UFAs: Brett Lebda, Brad Lukowich, and Joe Corvo

Stralman might look at Corvo as a beacon of hope - he's put up similar seasons in the NHL at times, and I'd say that the 2009-2010 Anton Stralman is decently comparable to Corvo's 2006-2007 season in Ottawa (except, of course, that Corvo knew how to keep the puck out of his own net...), and of the three he signed for the most money.

How much did Corvo get? $2.25 million?

If you're hoping for $3.5 million+, that's not terribly good news.

Frankly, the Free Agent market isn't going to be kind to Anton if he risks going to UFA status. While there are certainly teams with cap space available, several of the most likely candidates (Atlanta, Colorado, Dallas, St. Louis) all have stated that they intend to stay close to the cap floor for various reasons. Even worse, with two exceptions (Nashville and Anaheim), every other team with cap space to spend right now has at least 7 D-men already signed on one way NHL contracts, and neither of those remaining teams are likely to spend heavily on a UFA when they have touted defensive prospects like Cam Fowler, Luca Sbisa or Ryan Ellis who could be NHL ready this season. 

Teams know that there are plenty of options still out on the market, and more than a few teams under cap crunches still need to make trades. Why should a team take a $3 million flyer on Stralman when Marc-Andre Bergeron would probably lace up for them at $1.5 million? Why sign anyone right now, when they can wait until the middle of September when teams become desperate to squeeze under the cap, and all of the sudden they stop laughing at the offer of a middling prospect, a third round pick, and a journeyman forward, and start writing up paperwork?

If Anton Stralman walks through the door at 9:00am, he's leaping into a vortex of uncertainty and risk. He might come out of it with a huge raise, but it's just as likely that he'll leave jobless and desperate into a market that has no obligation to conform to his desires. When you have a long sleepless night considering those factors, an offer on the table, even if it's only a 250% raise instead of a 500% raise, suddenly looks a lot more attractive in the cold morning light.

On the other hand, if common sense was going to break out, I don't think that Stralman and his agent would have canceled negotiations tonight.

Probability: 15%

2) An Acceptable Award - If, as is rumored, the two sides are as much as 1 million dollars apart, its entirely possible that the honorable Ms. Brogan will come to a compromise that the Club will find acceptable. (In fact, interestingly enough, I was able to find an arbitration scorecard for some of her work with the MLB. In cases where the club and player were less than $1m apart, she did tend to side with the player, but four out of five times the sides were over $750,000 apart, she sided with the club.)

Both sides will probably breathe a little easier, but if I were Stralman, I'd hit the gym right away and start getting ready to fight tooth and nail for my job come training camp. As DBJ pointed out, John Moore is already waiting in the wings, and unless Stralman can show that he deserves a contract extension, this might only be a one year reprieve.

Probability: 40%

3) An Unacceptable Award - Howson has made no secret of the fact that if the price is too high, he's walking away. Point producing defensemen almost always receive a high award, regardless of their defensive liabilities. If the ruling comes down closer to Stralman's requested salary, expect Howson to offer Stralman a polite handshake, a hope that he'll have good luck in the future, and five minutes after leaving the room he'll be making a phone call to Mike Gillis, Brian Burke, or one of the other 27 general managers to tell them that he's ready to go forward with a trade that he likely started setting up five minutes after Stralman's agent filed the arbitration paperwork, or faxing an offer to a free agent who was starting to get worried that there might not be a job for him in the NHL this year.

It might not be finalized that same day, but Howson has been the man with a fall back plan since day 1 in Columbus, and I see no reason to expect anything different. Every move that he's made with regards to Stralman seems to indicate that he's not afraid of cashing out and stepping away from the table if the game gets too rich for his blood.

Probability: 45%

At the end of the day, I like Anton Stralman. I think that if he could improve his defensive play, he's exactly the type of player Howson's been using to build the Blue Jackets - young, offensively talented, and quick on his skates. I think Scott Arniel and Brad Berry could really shape him into a fantastic player. I'd love to see him in Union Blue for the upcoming season.

But I don't think he's irreplaceable, and I don't think Scott Howson does either. 

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