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Filip Hronek's arbitration case complicates Canucks' contract negotiations

As the Vancouver Canucks negotiate with Filip Hronek, his arbitration rights are his biggest leverage.
Filip Hronek has some serious leverage as a restricted free agent with arbitration rights.

The Vancouver Canucks’ most important free agent heading into the 2024 offseason is Filip Hronek. 

It’s not a question of whether the Canucks should re-sign him. In a vacuum, of course they should: Hronek is a vital component of the Canucks’ core, a right-shot defenceman who can play 23+ minutes per night, and has proven chemistry with Quinn Hughes.  

Finding a right-shot defenceman who can play top-pairing minutes without drafting and developing them yourself is a major challenge for any NHL team. Considering Hronek is still only 26 years old, locking him up long-term seems to be a no-brainer.

Only, it’s not quite that simple.

"Hopefully we can get a deal done."

The Canucks made Hronek a contract offer during the season with reports that it was in the vicinity of $6.5-6.75 million per year on an eight-year deal.

“We like Filip. He’s been a good fit for us and we want to keep him,” said Allvin after Elias Pettersson signed his own contract extension. “We have put a contract offer out to him which we feel is fair so hopefully we can get a deal done with Filip to stay here in Vancouver.”

On Hronek’s end, however, the rumoured ask is $8 million per year. The two sides are over $1 million apart in negotiations and ChekTV’s Rick Dhaliwal has reported that Hronek’s ask isn’t coming down.

That’s the sticking point. It’s not a question of whether the Canucks should re-sign Hronek, it’s whether it makes sense to re-sign him at an $8 million cap hit. 

It’s a cap hit that might be unavoidable, however, because Hronek has arbitration rights and his agent can build an outstanding case for Hronek with those rights.

Hronek's situation as a restricted free agent

Let’s start with the basics. Hronek is a restricted free agent (RFA), which means the Canucks have exclusive negotiating rights. In order to retain those rights, the Canucks will have to give Hronek a qualifying offer — a basic one-year contract indicating the team intends to re-sign a player.

Hronek’s qualifying offer, based on the $4.4 million cap hit of his previous contract, will be $5,280,000. Hronek will assuredly reject this qualifying offer, which is normal, and will continue negotiating with the Canucks.

While Hronek’s rights are owned by the Canucks, he does have a couple of options available to him, such as an offer sheet or arbitration.

Hronek could, in theory, sign an offer sheet with another team, forcing the Canucks to match the offer sheet or accept compensation from the signing team. But offer sheets are extremely rare and very unlikely in Hronek’s case. An offer sheet in the right range for Hronek would result in the Canucks getting the signing team’s first, second, and third-round picks as compensation and only 13 teams in the NHL even have those picks available to them. 

Realistically speaking, if any team wanted Hronek, negotiating a trade would make more sense than an offer sheet.

The biggest arrow in Hronek’s quiver, and the one more likely to be used, is arbitration. 

What is arbitration?

Arbitration rights are granted to RFAs once they’ve passed certain thresholds of professional experience. That threshold is four years for someone like Hronek, who signed his entry-level contract at 18. They’re a part of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA to give an experienced RFA more leverage in contract negotiations since they cannot negotiate with another team outside of an offer sheet.

In salary arbitration, a neutral third party will listen to arguments from both the player’s side and the team’s side and determine a fair salary for the player based on those arguments. It’s a way to resolve contract negotiations if the two sides can’t come to an agreement.

Arbitration is a particularly big threat in the case of Hronek because the contracts awarded by arbitration can only be for one or two years. That would take Hronek directly to unrestricted free agency, meaning the Canucks could potentially lose him for nothing in one or two years.

The deadline for a player to file for arbitration is July 5. In a way, that’s a deadline for the Canucks too, though they can continue to negotiate with Hronek if he files for arbitration and could still sign him to an extension right up until his hypothetical arbitration hearing. 24 players filed for arbitration last summer — just three went to a hearing.  

Either the player or the team can file for arbitration; in Hronek’s case, however, the Canucks will want to avoid arbitration if possible because Hronek has an excellent arbitration case.

Why does Hronek have such a strong case? Let’s break it down.

The vital statistics of Hronek's arbitration case

The two sides in an arbitration case present criteria to find comparable players, specifically other RFAs who signed contracts at a similar age. They can only use official NHL statistics — neither side is allowed to use independent, third-party statistics — though intangible factors such as leadership qualities can be included.

When it comes to official NHL statistics, Hronek is a beast. 

Hronek averaged 23:26 in ice time last season, which was 27th in the NHL, right behind one-time Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox. That ice time included nearly two minutes per game on both the power play and the penalty kill. He played 81 games, missing only a single game to injury.

Hronek’s 48 points were 21st among NHL defencemen, firmly in top-pairing territory, and he was 16th in even-strength points. His plus/minus of +33 was seventh among NHL defencemen. If you don’t like plus/minus, his even-strength goal differential of +31 still ranks seventh — the Canucks out-scored their opponents 96-to-65 when Hronek was on the ice at even-strength.

Delving into the slightly more advanced side of NHL statistics, we can look at Shot Attempt For Percentage (SAT%), the NHL’s name for corsi. At even-strength, Hronek had a solid 53.0 SAT%, comparable to fellow top-pairing defencemen like Roman Josi, Josh Morrisey, and MacKenzie Weegar.

Now, some Canucks fans might argue that a lot of those numbers are a result of Hronek playing with Hughes but providing evidence of that would require using statistics that are not available directly from the NHL. That’s a non-starter.

Besides, Hronek’s agent can point to his point production prior to coming to the Canucks. He was already scoring at a 40-point pace in his seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.

Hronek's contract comparables

All of that adds up to a rock-solid arbitration case that might very well get Hronek the $8 million cap hit he’s looking for or at least close to it. 

With those types of numbers, Hronek’s agent can draw comparisons to players like Mikhail Sergachev and Jacob Trouba, both of whom have cap hits starting with an 8: $8.5 million for Sergachev and $8 million for Trouba. As percentages of the salary cap, those would come out to around $9 million and $8.6 million as the cap goes up next season.

Here are a few of the statistics that Hronek’s agent could use in comparing Hronek to Trouba and Sergachev, drawn from the seasons before they signed their big contracts as RFAs.

You could certainly argue that Hronek is not as good as Sergachev and Trouba but you’d have a hard time making that argument exclusively with the statistics available directly from the NHL. 

The Canucks could respond with comparisons to the likes of Ryan Pulock or Neal Pionk, whose contracts signed at a similar age would fall into the $5.4-$6.3 million range as percentages of next year’s salary cap. 

Those comparisons, however, fall short in various ways, whether in minutes played, lower games played, or previous track record. To be honest, looking at this mostly makes me question Neal Pionk’s agent. 

The results of arbitration would then depend on which statistics and comparable players the neutral arbiter is most swayed by. Perhaps, the best the Canucks can hope for is for the arbiter to split the difference between the $9 million cap hit suggested by the Sergachev comparable and the $6.3 million cap hit suggested by the Pionk comparable. That still comes out to $7.65 million.

Arbitration is a potential poison pill for a trade

If Hronek’s contract demands and arbitration case make the Canucks nervous, it will make potential trade partners just as nervous. Hronek’s arbitration case is a potential poison pill for any trade talks as any team the Canucks talk to will be well aware of how much they’ll need to pay him and the possibility of losing him in one or two years after an arbitration hearing.

With all that in mind, the Canucks’ best bet is to negotiate a long-term deal with Hronek. The one or two-year arbitration award would be potentially risky for Hronek, with his long-term future dependent on him continuing to play like a top-pairing defenceman over the length of the contract to then cash in as an unrestricted free agent. 

The Canucks have to hope the security of an eight-year deal is enough to lower his contract demands as negotiations progress. Otherwise, things could get messy.