Daily Hab-it: Gorges would have a strong case
Montreal Canadiens' Josh Gorges (26) congratulates goalie Carey Price (31) as Scott Gomez (11) walks away following an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010. Montreal won 3-2. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Published Wednesday, July 6, 2011 3:37AM EDT
Josh Gorges filed for salary arbitration Tuesday.
Taken on its own, it is simply a natural progression of contract negotiation, an example of a player availing himself of the rights he has earned through his service time.
It's perfectly normal, because it's just about the only leverage a restricted free agent has under the NHL's current system, barring an offer sheet from another team that almost never comes.
Gorges' filing Tuesday will surely raise alarm bells all over Montreal that the negotiations are going poorly, or some people may even be tempted to think it's a sign that he won't come to terms with the Canadiens.
Well, I'm here to tell you that Gorges will indeed sign a contract to play in Montreal, and I would be shocked if it takes arbitration to do it.
First off, the Gorges camp knows that Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin consider him to be an important part of their young leadership core, and generally teams try to avoid entering a situation where their primary goal is to convince someone how bad one of their team's leaders is.
On the other hand, Gorges unabashedly said back in January that he would sign a long-term deal with the Canadiens in a second, and it's possible Gauthier is trying to leverage that into a lower salary.
So the game goes on, and once the date of a hearing is set I would imagine these negotiations will move away from the initial posturing to the stage of concessions coming from both sides towards a meeting point in the middle.
Still, I thought I would try and argue the case from both sides, just to see what arbitration may indeed look like should it ever get that far, keeping in mind the glaring disclaimer that I don't think it will ever reach this point.
The case for Gorges
It is difficult for a player like Gorges to go to arbitration because statistically, his qualities do not necessarily register.
However, I do believe Gorges can make a case based on a few comparables that are out there.
The first one I will present is done purely to demonstrate what kind of value an elite penalty-killing defenceman is worth on the unrestricted free agent market, which will be Gorges' status a year from now.
Last summer, Willie Mitchell played 48 regular season games with the Vancouver Canucks, missing the last 34 games and all of the playoffs with a concussion. Mitchell was considerably older at the time than Gorges is now at 33 years of age, but in his 48 games he played the highest number of shorthanded minutes per game of any defenceman in the league at a whopping 4:04.
Mitchell had to wait until late August, but he ultimately signed a two-year contract for $3.5 million per season with the Los Angeles Kings.
Now, Gorges is not unrestricted – which is obviously why he finds himself in arbitration – but he will turn only 27 in August and had a very similar season to what Mitchell had in 2009-10. (UPDATE: Thanks to the always sharp @wayne_chow for pointing out to me on Twitter that UFA contracts cannot be used as comparables in arbitration according to the CBA. Still, this being a hypothetical case, I'm allowing it!)
Gorges played 36 games before he was shut down to repair a torn ACL he had played on since his junior days in Kelowna, but in those games he was second to only his defence partner Hal Gill in shorthanded minutes per game among the league's defencemen at 3:46.
In the playoffs the previous year, Gorges was ninth among NHL defencemen and first on the Canadiens with 4:04 shorthanded minutes per game. What makes that number even more astonishing is that the Canadiens as a team were shorthanded for 4:16 per game in the 2009-10 playoffs. Overall, the Canadiens were down a man or two for 81:03 in those playoffs, and Gorges played 77:55 of that time, or 96.1 per cent of it. In spite of that, he was on the ice for only five power play goals against in 19 games. (UPDATE: Thanks to feel-x in the comments section for pointing out this is egregiously wrong. The Canadiens in fact had 139:13 of PK time in those playoffs, which means Gorges played 56 per cent of those minutes. That sounds more reasonable for a first pairing penalty killer. I should have known something was screwy there, but I was looking at the team's road PK time. Apologies).
Still, the Mitchell comparison being flawed considering the disparity in age and – most importantly – free agent status, another more recent comparable could be used for Gorges.
This is one I have already pointed out, but I'll summarize it again here.
The St. Louis Blues signed Roman Polak to a 5-year, $13.75 million contract at the beginning of June.
Polak, 25, has played heavy minutes for the Blues over his three full NHL seasons, and at 227 pounds he is more of a physical presence than Gorges.
However, Polak's played all of four playoff games in his career compared to 46 for Gorges and is only now coming into his own as a top shutdown defenceman.
The Blues bought three of Polak's unrestricted free agent years with this contract by paying him $3.1 million in years three through five of the contract.
Considering Polak finished 94th among the NHL's defencemen in shorthanded time on ice last season and has a history of injuries with 43 games missed in three years, Gorges can easily argue he is deserving of considerably more than Polak's $2.75 million annual cap hit.
A more recent, and perhaps better, example came when Columbus avoided arbitration with Marc Methot on Tuesday by signing him to a 4-year, $12 million deal.
He has been one of Columbus' top penalty killing defencemen the past two seasons, though he has not been a fixture on their top special teams pairing until now. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, Methot would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer because he turns 27 a week before the deadline in 2012. So his deal also purchases three of his unrestricted free agent years, just like Polak's.
Again, Gorges has played 135 more regular season games and 42 more playoff games than Methot despite being just a year older and being in the same situation of unrestricted free agent eligibility next summer. Gorges has already proven himself as the team's top penalty killer the past two seasons, whereas Methot is likely being given that role now with the departure of Jan Hejda.
Like Polak, Methot is a big man with a promising future ahead of him, but his contract also suggests Gorges should be better paid.
Finally, and this is the part where I have no idea how this plays in an arbitration hearing, there are the intangibles Gorges brings to the table.
He grew in the 2010 playoffs into a team leader, one who played hurt on numerous occasions while missing just one game over the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, one who compensates for his lack of size with competitive spirit, and one who has professed his loyalty to the organization and his desire to win in Montreal.
The Canadiens' case
As ridiculous as it may sound, the Canadiens case against Gorges would likely rest on his lack of offensive productivity, seeing as defencemen who concentrate on their own end are generally penalized for it when it comes time to talk salary.
But in all honestly, I tried looking for a comparable that would help the Canadiens here and simply couldn't find a perfect match.
There's Carolina's Tim Gleason, who in 2008 signed a 4-year, $11 million contract as a 25-year-old to play a very similar role to that of Gorges. There's also Greg Zanon, who as a 29-year-old UFA in 2009 had to settle for a 3-year, $5.8 million deal in Minnesota to be a shutdown penalty killer.
Perhaps there are other good comparables the Canadiens could potentially use in this case, but I couldn't find them.
That would leave the team to argue that the uncertainty of Gorges' recovery from his knee surgery warrants a trial period, where a one-year deal at a low salary would allow the team the chance to make sure the knee is solid.
That's about it, as far as I can tell.
Just a matter of when
The breadth of the case for Gorges and the brevity of that of the Canadiens is a big reason why I think this will get done before it ever reaches the point of trading barbs in front of an arbiter.
On July 1, when discussing his defence for the coming year, Gauthier casually mentioned Gorges as a member even though he was unsigned.
That, coupled with Gorges' apparent desire to stay in Montreal, makes it pretty plain to see that something will likely be worked out between the two parties.