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Chere: Travis Zajac Files for Salary Arbitration - What This Could Mean for the New Jersey Devils

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Chere has reported just under a half-hour ago that Travis Zajac has filed for salary arbitration.  As is his right according to the NHL CBA.  Now, I'm sure the first question some of you may ask is, "What in the world does that mean? What could happen?"  Let's break it down using what little knowledge I have of arbitration and Article 12 of the NHL CBA, which covers arbitration.

The short-term and initial good news is that Travis Zajac will (almost) definitely return next season.    I emphasize almost as teams have "walk-away" rights after the results of arbitration that they can invoke within a vast number of requirements.  Based on past arbitration hearings with the Devils that I can recall, the player has returned next season. Moreover, I don't expect the Devils to walk away from Zajac, not with their current lack of depth at the position and with their current surplus of cap space. So expect Zajac to continue to be the center for Zach Parise.  However, considering the process, this could turn out to be some serious bad news for the Devils.

The process itself is, I think, essentially more straight forward than explained in the NHL CBA.  If you have some time and would like to read more into how the league operates, I highly recommend checking it out for yourself.   Assuming I have this right (and if I don't, please let me know!), the player (and the NHLPA) and the team (and the NHL) makes their respective cases and an independent arbitraitor makes his or her ruling and awards a one or two year (depends on what is elected for arbitration) contract to the player.  It's very much like making a legal case; and the CBA has all kinds of requirements involving what could be presented as evidence and how procedures go. According to the CBA, the player makes their argument, the team makes their argument, the player rebuts the team's argument, the team rebuts the player's argument, and then there is a ruling.  

But let's get back to Zajac. From my understanding of past arbitration hearings that Bobby Holik and Scott Gomez went through, this is a cold process.  In a one-on-one negotation, there may be more (for lack of a better word) acceptance of a flaw or value added to an asset.  Yet, in arbitration, it all boils down to hard facts.  Let's have some hard facts, something I'm sure Zajac and his people will bring up:

2008 - Travis Zajac 82 20 42 62 33 29 5 1 2 0 185 10.8

2008 - Brian Gionta 81 20 40 60 12 32 3 3 1 0 248 8.1

Now, Gionta just got $5 million/year from Montreal and Zajac was more productive than he was in all aspects except for shots on goal.  So Zajac can ask for some serious money and he'll have a case, right?

UPDATE: Well, no. Gulitti in his own comments clarified what can and cannot be used as evidence, or in this case, a "comparable."  I certainly didn't know that and, well, it's a bit of a relief - one less thing to worry about.  Here's the explanation from Gulitti:

Contracts given to unrestricted free agents cannot be used as comparables in the arbitration hearing. So, for example, Gionta's contract cannot be used as a comparable and would have no impact on the arbitrator's ruling.

The only comparables are contracts signed by other restricted free agents or players who could have become restricted free agents if they had not signed.

For example, Zach Parise's average of $3.125 can be used as a comparable.

Well, not so fast. So let's compare it to a RFA. Earlier in June, the Boston Bruins signed RFA center David Krejci to an extension worth $3.75 million/year as a cap hit; and Krejci was more productive than both players while being about the same age as Zajac and playing the same position as him:

2008 - David Krejci 82 22 51 73 37 26 5 2 6 0 146 15.1

So Zajac and his people can use this baseline as a case for somewhere above $3 million, while Lou and his people can argue that no way should Zajac earn more than Krejci.

This is all just an example of how it could on. Personally, I think Zajac could command $3 - $3.5 million and it'd be a fair value - he shouldn't get Krejci money, but not much less than that.  Then again, this summer has shown that this is a market where Gionta somehow got $5 million/year.  Who knows how this could go?  I cannot say for sure.

I can definitely state that the proceedings will be far more complex than this and this is what you should be worried about.   Should this hearing get nasty, and Zajac and his people essentially leaves with the arbitrator ruling in favor of the Devils after spending a day hearing why he's not as worth as much as he think he is, this could spell the end of Zajac as a Devil.   Once that arbitrator-awarded contract ends, Zajac will most likely want to leave ASAP (not the next season, but when he eligible for UFA status) and earn a paycheck elsewhere.   Even if the arbitration seemingly works out in the players favor, like when Gomez had his salary doubled back in 2005; he still went away from the organization (to the Rangers, no less!) when he became a free agent again.  The process can do a lot of damage to that player-organization relationship.  And then there's the blow-off option the team has; simply "walking away"  from the arbitration ruling when awarded and leaving the player as an unrestricted free agent.  Again, I don't think the Devils will use that "walk away" option so I wouldn't worry about that.

The upside is that should the hearings go fairly well - even in favor of Zajac or not that nasty, then Lou could simply offer a contract extension later on in the season should Zajac and his people are receptive.  Arbitration does not guarantee that the player will leave the team at the earlier possibility; it just tends to happen based on how the process goes.  Holik and Gomez were well into their careers when they went to arbitration and so they could demand (and eventually command) big money. Zajac turned 24 a few months ago, so I won't go as far as to say that he would be likely to do the same unless he builds off that excellent bounce-back season he just had in 2008-09. And hey, no other team can negotiate with Zajac other than the Devils up until the hearings - so no offer sheets can be tendered.  Hence, Zajac is a Devil at least in the short-term.

Still, if you think that Zajac should be a long-term Devil, setting up Parise for night after night, then you need to pay very close attention to how the arbitration hearings go later this summer (it's usually the end of July, beginning of August).  That will go a long way more than anything else as to whether he wants to be a Devil.  Zajac will almost definitely be in Devils red next season.  Whether or not he'll stay in New Jersey is now a serious question mark.

Have your say in the comments below.  Are you concerned that Zajac is going this route?  Did I get something wrong or forget about an example of a Devils-arbitration hearing going well?   Let me know how you think about this news.