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Wheeler and Jets avoid salary arbitration, others won't be so lucky

TORONTO - Blake Wheeler readily admits he wasn't looking forward to Aug. 3.

That was the day he and the Winnipeg Jets were scheduled to sit across from one another and make their case in salary arbitration — a meeting the sides happily avoided by agreeing to a US$5.1-million, two-year deal Monday night.

While Wheeler and agent Matt Keator exercised their right under the collective bargaining agreement to file for arbitration, the player had always hoped it wouldn't be necessary.

"It's never the most comfortable thing sitting in the room with your employer and hearing maybe not some of the nicest things about yourself," Wheeler said Tuesday on a conference call. "It's definitely nice to start off on a really good foot with these guys and I'm just really excited that it was done in a pretty timely fashion.

"I think all sides are happy with the way it turned out."

Others might not be so lucky.

There were still 11 salary arbitration cases scheduled to be held, starting Wednesday with Phoenix Coyotes winger Lauri Korpikoski and Tampa Bay Lightning winger Teddy Purcell.

Salary arbitration is a tool available to a relatively small pool of players — those with a few years of NHL experience who have yet to reach unrestricted free agency. Teams also have the right to initiate arbitration, but it's much less common.

In the majority of cases, everyone involved would much rather reach an agreement on their own rather than go through a hearing. Sometimes the mere possibility of that helps bridge the gap in negotiations.

Following Wheeler's new deal in Winnipeg, Buffalo Sabres defenceman Andrej Sekera and Anaheim Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano each signed contracts Tuesday to avoid salary arbitration hearings of their own.

Of the 32 salary arbitration filings made a year ago, just four players were subjected to a hearing (27 reached settlements ahead of time and the Atlanta Thrashers didn't contest a case with Clarke MacArthur).

The Coyotes were well-prepared to go before an arbitrator on Wednesday to try and get a new deal done with Korpikoski. General manager Don Maloney indicated Tuesday that he didn't expect any last-minute agreement coming with a player who had a career-best 19 goals and 40 points last season.

"We like the player, he is important to us," Maloney said in an email. "We simply disagree on his compensation level for next season, given his NHL career to date. Regardless of the result, the player will be well-paid next season."

Each of the arbitration hearings is held in Toronto and follows a specific protocol laid out in the CBA. The sides each get the floor for 90 minutes and are limited in what evidence they can use to support their case.

The presentations are allowed to focus on a player's statistics, his contribution to team success and identifying others around the league with similar numbers that draw a salary in the desired range. However, they must not include references to a team's salary cap situation, any history of negotiations between the player and the team or make a comparison to a deal signed by an unrestricted free agent.

Following the hearing, the arbitrator has 48 hours to make a decision and will provide a brief explanation of why he settled on a specific salary.

If the award is for more than $1,633,131 on a one-year deal, the team has the right to walk away from the ruling and let the player become an unrestricted free agent. That happened a year ago with the Chicago Blackhawks and goaltender Antti Niemi.

Otherwise, the sides go forward with the contract dictated by the arbitrator.

"It's a great thing to have as a player, it gives you that extra leverage," said Wheeler. "We're really fortunate to have that in the CBA. It's really a good (tool) for you in terms of negotiating. There's no question that you feel fortunate to have that right."

Of course, most players are happiest when they don't have to use it.

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A look at the schedule for the NHL's salary arbitration hearings (x-denotes team initiated arbitration):

Wednesday — Lauri Korpikoski, Phoenix; Teddy Purcell, Tampa.

Thursday — Brandon Dubinsky, N.Y. Rangers.

July 28 — Josh Gorges, Montreal; Ryan Callahan, N.Y. Rangers.

July 29 — Jannik Hansen, Vancouver.

Aug. 2 — x-Shea Weber, Nashville.

Aug. 3 — Chris Campoli, Chicago; x-Zach Parise, New Jersey.

Aug. 4 — Mark Fraser, New Jersey; Blake Comeau, N.Y. Islanders.