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Clarke MacArthur's arbitration decision still raising questions about arbitration system

Aug 6, 2010, 9:30 AM EDT

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clarkemacarthur3.jpgIt’s been over a week since now former Thrashers forward Clarke MacArthur had his seemingly bizarre and oddly inflated arbitration award for $2.4 million walked away from by Atlanta making him an unrestricted free agent. We say bizarre because a player scoring 16 goals getting a $1 million raise seems rather out of place against what the market dictates.  As it turns out, there was more at work behind the scenes than you’d imagine as James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail shares.

When it came time to meet with an arbitrator, the Thrashers simply asked for the award to be presented immediately, based on the player’s demands, so they could then walk away from the contract.

That’s how a third-line forward who had 35 points landed a $2.4-million (all currency U.S.) award, one the hockey world has been puzzling over ever since.

“We said, you know what, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing if he gets this silly award,” Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley said. “We kind of encouraged it.”

Well that’s certainly a fun way to handle things from a management standpoint, opting to “fall on the grenade” and let the player “win” the case because they’re just going to walk away anyhow. With that sort of reaction from a team’s general manager some might start to question the validity of the arbitration system on the whole. After all, what Rick Dudley essentially did there was to throw the case and while MacArthur was going to win, the minimum walkaway number for teams was around $1.6 million.

Looking back at this year’s arbitration cases, we saw that eventually three players were sent packing either by their teams walking away from their awards (MacArthur and Antti Niemi) or via buyout (Tim Kennedy). Does this mean things are changing and the system is breaking down? Mirtle finds out from some general managers that this is just business as usual.

“I’ve always argued that if you go to a hearing, it’s actually the breakdown of the process,” said Ian Pulver, an agent who used to handle arbitration cases when he worked for the NHL Players’ Association. “The fear or the risk of having another person determine a player’s value, on either side, is what brings a settlement.”

Pulver said it was a positive sign that 26 of the 31 players who filed for arbitration this summer signed before their hearing. “That’s indicative of a process that’s working,” he said.

Arbitration, as it is, is made out to be the absolute last straw in negotiations between a restricted free agent and his team. After all, if neither side can come to an agreement how happy is either side going to be once things are hashed out in court? Someone is going to end up feeling bitter about things somehow. Even in Antti Niemi’s case where the arbitrator split the difference between what Niemi and the Blackhawks each wanted, the Blackhawks still got their way by cutting Niemi loose and signing Marty Turco for less money. With all that said, with what the Thrashers did concerning MacArthur and the Sabres with Kennedy have done is introduced a new kind of weapon to utilize when it comes to arbitration: the pink slip. It is just a business after all.

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