Maple Leafs’ Mikheyev Arbitration Could End Badly

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ilya Mikheyev and his agent are headed for arbitration. That hearing is coming up on Wednesday. Although professional sports is a business and NHL players are supposed to be able to suffer critique as part of their work, I can’t imagine that any 26-year-old young man would emerge from an arbitration hearing without suffering psychological scars even if he wins.

What Happens During an Arbitration Hearing

When a player and an organization go to contract arbitration, each side presents a dollar figure to an arbitrator. That arbitrator’s job is to use the evidence, based upon the player’s body of work, to decide what the contract numbers should be. Usually, the final number represents a compromise between the two offers, but that’s not always the way it ends.

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As tradition would have it, the player’s agent usually comes in with a high number and the organization usually comes in with a low number. So, it isn’t out of the ordinary when there’s often a huge difference between what the two sides present to the arbitrator.

Mikheyev Arbitration Ask Is Almost Triple What the Maple Leafs Offered

Yesterday, the numbers each side presented to the arbitration hearing between the Maple Leafs and Mikheyev became public. True to form, the player came in high and the team came in low. As Elliotte Friedman tweeted yesterday, the Maple Leafs presented an offer for a two-year contract at an average annual value of $1 million. Mikheyev’s agent has filed a one-year, $2.7 million contract.

Here’s how the process works. As noted, an arbitrator need not choose one side’s number or the other’s number. Often the choice lands somewhere in the middle, but the process is exceedingly contentious. And, I for one, can’t imagine – from a human element – how it benefits either side in the long run.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

During the hearing itself, the team will go on and on about why Mikheyev’s body of work as a player isn’t close to being worth the money his side is seeking. Then Mikheyev’s team must convince an arbitrator that the Maple Leafs are an organization that’s willing to lowball its players on their salary offers.

Why Such a Hearing Might End Up Badly

Sadly, and I hope this isn’t true, the end result might be that all the personal friendship and goodwill general manager Kyle Dubas and Mikheyev built up when they spent so much time together in December will end. As Maple Leafs fans will recall, after the young Russian’s horrible hockey accident when his wrist was sliced open by an opponent’s skate blade, Dubas spent days with his player just hanging out and caring for him. Dubas’ wife suggested it.

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

During a hearing where the task is to engage in such discordant activity, could that goodwill evaporate and the immediate personal friction caused by the process be what’s remembered? It can’t be a pretty process, and it could end poorly by harming long-term relationships.

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Because the case is set for Wednesday, the two sides can reach an agreement any time before the meeting. However, once the hearing begins, both sides must wait for the arbitrator’s award and can no longer settle during the time the arbitrator deliberates.

Will Mikheyev Be Judged on Actual Production or on Potential?

Everyone knows of the Maple Leafs’ flirtation with the upper limits of the salary cap, so the amount of the award to Mikheyev matters. Specifically, he might well be worth more, but now that the process has started, Dubas must push for the best possible value for his organization and he’s choosing to play hardball.

What’s interesting in this hearing is that Mikheyev hasn’t accrued the body of work he might need to make the case that $2.7 million is fair payment. Mikheyev started the 2019-20 season well, scoring eight goals and 23 points in 39 games. But that December wrist injury stalled his momentum. An additional fly in the ointment is that, although Mikheyev had a great training camp before the postseason, he showed next to nothing against the Columbus Blue Jackets during that qualifying series. Which player is he?

The Maple Leafs are obviously banking on the fact that the arbitrator will choose to bias actual production, which is usually the case. On the other hand, Mikheyev’s agent has drafted a figure that’s based upon what the winger would have produced had he remained healthy.

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It will be interesting where this arbitration lands should the hearing actually take place. If the arbitrator uses actual production, it’s not likely to go well for Mikheyev. And, should that be the case, as easy as it is to say “Just business, nothing personal,” the arbitration seems exceedingly personal to me.

Who among us would appreciate this process? Although those who play professional sports are supposed to be able to say “no hard feelings,” I’m not buying that it will happen that way.

Why the Numbers Matter for the Maple Leafs?

As a fan, I’m looking forward to having Mikheyev on the team, but an arbitration hearing might militate against that happening over the long haul. I hope I’m wrong.

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The final outcome of Mikheyev’s arbitration hearing is one of the most pressing items on the Maple Leafs upcoming agenda.

Will that outcome have a domino effect on the ability of the team to sign Travis Dermott? Am I wrong about lingering feelings? Will both sides be able to say “nothing personal” and get on to the business of building a team that includes the young Russian?

Travis Dermott Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott (AP Photo/John Locher)

I’m hoping the two sides come to some sort of an agreement; however, given the space between the two numbers submitted, perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my part.