Josh Gorges & Arbitration: What's the Issue?

There was a bit of a surprised reaction in Habland yesterday when it was revealed that Josh Gorges and his agent, Kevin Epp, had decided to file for player-elected arbitration.

The news was especially surprising to me, as I had just got done posting a blog where I had mentioned that I thought the negotiation process with Gorges would be relatively simple, as the 26-year-old defenseman was one of only two skaters on the main roster that the team had left to sign, along with tough guy forward Ryan White.

To give you a bit of a backstory to the whole matter:

Gorges made $1.3 million in the last of a three-year deal that the Kelowna, BC native signed with the Canadiens a little more than a year after the team traded Craig Rivet to acquire him and the pick that would eventually become Max Pacioretty. That three year deal saw Gorges go through three very different seasons seasons with the Canadiens. In the first year, Gorges put up a career high 23 points, with a +12 rating. His four goals were three more than any of his previous totals, and 19 assists were 10 more than in 2007-08.

In 2009-10, Gorges' production dropped to just 10 points and a +2 in his first and only full 82 game season, but it was still a breakout season for the defensive defenseman, as he was simply lights out for the Canadiens in their Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals, leading the team in shutting down the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.

This season, Gorges would of course only play 36 games, thanks to season-ending knee surgery.

So how did all of this lead to player-elected arbitration?

Simply put, it seems as if the Canadiens aren't willing to give him the money and term that he wants. We obviously can't say for sure, but we do know that the only offer the Canadiens tendered to the Gorges camp was the required qualifying offer at the end of June. And that was a one-year, $1.3 million salary Gorges made last year.

Obviously, in most cases, a qualifying offer is just a starting point in the negotiation process. I doubt anyone, including the Canadiens, was expecting Gorges to sign for the same money he made last year. He's clearly earned more in the five years he's donned the Canadiens' uniform. Moreover, the Canadiens have more than enough room to give him a substantial and deserved raise.

The problem arises when you decide to factor in Gorges' performance over the last three years, and when you take into consideration that Gorges will be an unrestricted free agent in a year's time -- if, of course, he ends up getting but a one year deal. Do you give more to the fact that he put up career highs in points during this contract, and that he turned it around, providing top flight defensive hockey the next year? Or do you weight all of that against the knee that Gorges couldn't -- pun intended -- put any weight on for most of the year?

We could bring up the comparisons of other similar defensive defensemen and the stats they put up throughout the last couple of years, as well as the contracts that they were awarded at a similar age, so near unrestricted free agency, but in reality, Gorges is a particular case, simply because of that pesky knee surgery. And when you put that together with the fact that his contributions aren't as quantifiable as, say, points, it gets a little complicated, and it's understandable that the two camps might not yet be at a meeting point.

But all of this doesn't mean that Habs fans should worry. Just like a qualifying offer is a tool for teams not to lose the rights to their players, filing for arbitration for both teams and players is a negotiation tool to more or less set up a deadline for the negotiating process, so the teams and players don't have to worry about arbitration through long, summer months. Instead, filing for arbitration tells the Canadiens that Gorges doesn't want to spend his entire summer wondering what he'll be making in September, and that he wants to get this done.

In fact, most players who file for arbitration sign contracts before their hearings. According to Pat Hickey, 19 players filed for arbitration last summer, with only four actually making it to their mid-summer hearings without signing. This year's number is a little higher, with 23 players having filed, headlined by Blake Comeau (New York Islanders), Teddy Purcell (Tampa Bay Lightning), Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg Jets) and even former Hab Sergei Kostitsyn (Nashville Predators). But Columbus has already taken one name off the list, signing defenseman Marc Methot soon after he filed, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Josh Gorges' name scratched off that list by July 20th either.

That said, it should still be relatively concerning to Habs fans that the team is unwilling to give Gorges his fair share of the pie. Maybe they've already offered him a sizable increase over the $1.3 million qualifying offer, maybe they've offered him a better term. The going rate for a defensive defenseman these days is anywhere between $2.5M and $3.5M, and frankly, considering some of the contracts given out these year, I would be okay with any amount within that range. Not to mention, Gorges has been a Canadien for a very long time now, and an important one at that that clearly has the respect of pretty much everyone in town, most importantly the coach, Jacques Martin. Which, of course, implies that he wouldn't want to handicap the team with insane demands that were out of his market price range.

While, as I said, I'm aware that filing for arbitration in many cases is nothing more than a bargaining chip for teams and agents, all of this begs the question: why did it have to come to this? To me, signing Gorges seems like a straightforward for the entire season. I thought that the knee injury would even make it easier to sign him, not because it would reduce his value, but that it would give Pierre Gauthier an excuse to sign him earlier, seeing as he was important enough to warrant attention from management and he wasn't playing.

The Canadiens had over half a season and two off-season months to get a deal that strikes me as incredibly simple. Give him the $3 million price range he's earned, give him four or five more years with the team, doing yourself a favor in the process by taking him away from unrestricted free agency, and move on to other things.

All of this having been said: What's the hold-up?

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Note -  a lot of my information was taken from the following links, which you should read to find out more on the Gorges case and arbitration in general:

8 Comments

Phil T's picture

If Pierre Gauthier somehow screws this up, I will be incredibly irritated

Jason Pietroniro's picture

I love this guy. I think he's captain material. But let's be honest. Let's take off the Hab Goggles and really think about this. Regardless of cap space and who deserves what, this is a business. And simply put, anything over 2.5-2.75 is ridiculous. Gorges is a great player and a huge part of the team, but theres no way I wanna see him signed for 3+ for 4-5 years. We got Price to worry about next year, not to mention PK Subban and a few others. I think PG is taking that into consideration. Timing was bad for JG this year. Knee, the amount of important RFA next year etc. I think he should just take a 1 yr deal. For something in the range of 2.5-2.75 and go from there. He's been spectacular but like you mentioned above, he's gone down since he had gone up. Not taking away from his incredible play in our 2010 cup run, but I'd rather him walk then pay him more than 3 million.

Phil T's picture

While I agree that anything over 3M is pushing it, I don't want to see the guy leave. I think what Gorges wants more than anything is job security so a longer deal is probably what he would fall for. 6 years, 2.5M per?

George Prax's picture

What's the sense in taking a 1 year deal for either side, if they have all those RFAs to sign? He's not going to break the bank even at $3 million, and that's about the market for defensemen like him, not to mention he's more useful than James Wizniewski will ever be, and not many had a problem with offering him $4.5 million. It's not about being bias, the guy's earned a payday, and it's a reasonable amount. That extra $500K isn't going to stop them from signing Plekanec and Price next year. This should be a long term deal and it shouldn't be difficult at all.

Jason Pietroniro's picture

6 years at 2.5 per is fine by me. I'd prefer a 4 year deal though. but hey, I can't have it all.

Phil T's picture

I really don't understand what takes so long in negotiations. Shouldn't the whole process take a few back and forth?

- I want 3M for 10 years
- We can only give 2 for 4.
- How about 2.5 for 6?
- Done.

George Prax's picture

Except the part of the habs is more like: "here`s your $1.3M qualifying offer, asshole"

And then never pick up the phone again.

demez's picture

I was very surprised when I saw he filed for arbitration. I guess with the raises everyone else is getting he felt he wanted his payday as well. Let's hope this is a long term deal of at least 3-4 years at a decent rate. He's our best stay at home defenseman, he pairs well with Gill or Markov and he's a leader in the locker room, I hope we don't lose him for a few hundred K.