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Here’s Why O’Connor, Penguins Should Settle … Soon



pittsburgh penguins, drew o'connor

It’s not particularly troubling that Drew O’Connor and the Pittsburgh Penguins are scheduled for salary arbitration.

Not yet, anyway.

After all, that’s a tool the league’s labor agreement makes available to some restricted free agents, who qualify for it on a sliding scale, based on their age and NHL experience. (Teams also can take players to arbitration, although that is fairly rare.)

The process is fairly simple: Each side offers a proposed salary to an arbitrator, and makes a presentation to support its position. The arbitrator then has 48 hours to announce the salary the player will receive.

O’Connor’s hearing is scheduled for Aug. 4, the final day on which any will be held.

Precedent suggests there’s a pretty good chance his hearing never will happen.

Oh, a few cases do just about every year, but more often than not, the parties — spurred to negotiate by a looming hearing — reach an agreement before meeting with the arbitrator.

There’s a pretty good reason for doing that, too.

While the gap between what O’Connor will be seeking and the Penguins will be offering doesn’t figure to be all that big, the hard truth is that if his case actually goes to a hearing, the team can be expected to put forth a presentation that cites just about every negative feature of his game.

Stresses them, even.

To wit: Hey, O’Connor has never shown that he’ll be anything more than a standard-issue, bottom-six forward. He’s 25 years old and has been a pro for three seasons, but has played more than 22 games in the NHL only once. He doesn’t have a game-winning goal or a single special-teams point in 78 career games.  Averaged fewer points per game than 18 teammates in 2022-23.

You get the idea.

It’s nothing personal, of course. If the Pittsburgh Penguins really didn’t like O’Connor and believe in his potential to be a significant contributor, Kyle Dubas wouldn’t have given him a qualifying offer and would have allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent.

Nonetheless, every team’s objective in a hearing is to minimize the amount their player will be paid, so the critiques they offer can be savage.

The player’s representative, of course, counters by offering the most flattering possible assessment of his/her client, emphasizing every positive statistic and aspect of his game.

While that might sound like standard negotiating stuff, some players who have gone through the process – especially ones who could reasonably be described as members of their team’s supporting cast — have volunteered how deflating it can be to be discussed in such disparaging terms by officials of the club that employs them.

Some guys can shrug off those blistering evaluations as nothing more than their team looking out for its interests, but others have suggested that what transpires in a hearing can sting, even cause them to question whether the club actually values their work.

There’s no reason to think O’Connor is a delicate flower whose psyche would be shattered by what is said about him during a hearing; he might well be one of the guys who would shed it the way a 6-foot-3, 205-pound winger intent on bulling his way to the net would shed an undersized defenseman.

Still, confidence is the greatest asset a player can have, and it really could be counter-productive to knowingly risk shaking O’Connor’s belief in his abilities at this stage of his development.

While O’Connor isn’t likely to develop into a difference-maker, he played well down the stretch in 2022-23 and had a strong showing for Team USA at the world championships. He should enter training camp with genuine momentum, and appears to be on a positive career trajectory.

That said, O’Connor has to recognize the niche he occupies on this team, and set his salary expectations accordingly.

The Pittsburgh Penguins obviously have some salary-cap concerns — depending on how one configures their Opening Night roster, they’re already above the $83.5 million ceiling — and if O’Connor’s hearing actually is held, they surely will look to make the most effective case possible. regardless of how O’Connor is skewered in the process.

Which is why both sides should do everything possible to reach a settlement before Aug. 4.