July 5 at 5:00 PM Eastern is the deadline for eligible restricted free agents to elect salary arbitration. It’s an important decision that is typically driven by a player’s agent, and is usually a pressure tactic to get a significantly better deal for their client that the team was willing to offer.
It so happens that the Montreal Canadiens have four such players: Charles Hudon, Michael McCarron, Artturi Lehkonen, and Joel Armia. It’s not too hard to argue that the latter two are more valuable to the Canadiens than the former pair. It’s also argued that Lehkonen and Armia bring more than tertiary support, but certain qualities like elite puck protection from Armia and defensive acumen in the case of Lehkonen, thing that the general statistics cannot show, therefore making negotiations difficult. They could be prime candidates to elect salary arbitration.
We’ve seen several players turn to this negotiation tactic during Marc Bergevin’s tenure as general manager. In what’s become apparent, Bergevin does not appreciate the strong-arm tactic. Bergevin is a very tough negotiator, and although no arbitration filing actually led to an arbitrator-selected salary, Bergevin have shown that such moves can shorten a player’s tenure with the Canadiens.
He would prefer a negotiation without a set deadline, and he certainly prefers to get a slight upper hand in order to manage the talent he has under the salary cap as efficiently as possible to try to build a winning formula. Too many teams are bogged down with disappointing contracts, and the Canadiens arguably only have one at the moment: Karl Alzner’s. A lot of it has to do with Bergevin’s ability to identify the problem deals and trade them away. We think of Erik Cole, Rene Bourque, and Travis Moen as examples.
He also considers arbitration-threatened negotiations as contracts that are not to his liking. Since 2012, seven players filed for arbitration with the Montreal Canadiens: Raphael Diaz (2012), Ryan White (2013), P.K. Subban (2014), Lars Eller (2014), Alex Galchenyuk (2017), Phillip Danault (2018), and Joel Armia (2018). The first five were all traded away during the life of the contract that resulted. Nathan Beaulieu was traded away in 2017 prior to the arbitration filing deadline, filing with the Buffalo Sabres instead. Danault is headed into year two of his three-year deal. Armia’s one-year contract has expired, and in a few days we might know if he elects arbitration again.
How is any of this relevant to Sebastian Aho? Well, as it turns out Aho, Lehkonen, and Armia all have the same Finnish player agent: Mika Rautakallio. Aho also has Gerry Johannson as his North American agent, who happens to be the agent for Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, and Brett Kulak. Although Johannson was the public face of the Aho offer-sheet negotiations, it’s certain that Rautakallio was in the mix as well. We are dealing with some established relationships with very particular dynamics.
If we step back in time to look at Aho’s free agency, it’s known that the Carolina Hurricanes were low-balling Aho with their initial contract offers, and negotiations could have proven long and drawn out. What the Canadiens offer sheet managed to do is get Rautakallio’s client paid a good salary, with a big upfront bonus ahead of a potential lockout. But it also wasn’t so absurd as to price out Carolina (though the contract match is not yet official). Bergevin essentially helped close out negotiations quickly.
Is this to say there was a clandestine deal between the parties? Probably not, but discussions were had and things moved forward. Now Bergevin can get Rautakallio to focus on Armia and Lehkonen. If they can be signed to reasonable deals, perhaps with a similar approach to signing bonuses, they are very good bottom-six players.
Bergevin wants to get a favourable deal for each one, and doing the agent a favour probably helps smooth over negotiations and present an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” situation where they can avoid the unnecessary unpleasantness of a looming arbitration. We will know in a few days whether this tactic worked when the arbitration filing deadline comes and goes, and whether Armia and Lehkonen are on that list or not.