It’s not altogether uncommon for restricted free agents to file for arbitration. Whether they actually get there is another story.
Such hearings become moot if the team can agree to terms with the player beforehand, which Jim Rutherford and the Hurricanes have been able to accomplish with regularity in recent years. Not since Jeff O’Neill in 2000 has a Carolina player made it all the way through his hearing.
Given that successful track record, it’s easy to see why Rutherford isn’t panicking about the current situation with rugged forward Tuomo Ruutu, whose hearing is set for July 30.
“It’s just part of the process,” he said. “We’ve always been able to figure out a way to get an agreement done.”
While Ruutu’s hearing is still over two weeks away, the sticking point in negotiations thus far has been the length of the proposed contract. A one-year deal, either awarded through arbitration or agreed to beforehand with the Hurricanes, suits Ruutu just fine. In that scenario, he would become an unrestricted free agent next summer and could potentially be in line for a bigger payday from a number of suitors.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes would prefer to sign Ruutu to a multi-year deal, both to avoid that situation and to lock up a player they like for a few more years.
“Really I think what’s happening here is trying to decide if it’s a one-year contract and letting him go out as a UFA the following year or a longer-term contract,” said Rutherford. “We really like Tuomo, we’d like him to stay here and we’d like to do this long-term.”
Although the potential payout for Ruutu is greater with a one-year deal, there are also risks involved. He would need to have a season that was at least as good or better than the one he just had, in which he set career highs in goals (26), assists (28) and points (54) in order to reach that potential. If his production slows significantly or he suffers through injuries – a problem earlier in his career – he may wish he had the security of a longer-term contract.
There are pros and cons to each side of this process, but it’s a good bet that both sides would rather not go to the hearing, which in some cases can be damaging to the relationship between player and management. The most infamous example came several years ago with then-New York Islanders goaltender Tommy Salo, who reportedly left his hearing in tears after listening to his general manager, Mike Milbury, rattle off all the reasons why he did not deserve a big contract. That’s not to say the same thing would happen with the Canes and Ruutu, but it’s generally for the best to avoid those awkward situations whenever possible.
That could mean settling for a one-year contract that would have been eventually awarded by an arbitrator anyway, which is what happened with Chad LaRose in a very similar situation last season. LaRose was given a one-year deal weeks before his hearing that ultimately still allowed him to explore unrestricted free agency this summer.
While that’s a possibility, the Hurricanes will undoubtedly still try to sign Ruutu for a year or two longer than that, and they still have plenty of time to do so.