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GARRIOCH: The Ottawa Senators and Connor Brown have $2.5M gap to bridge before arbitration

Ottawa Senators right wing Connor Brown.
Ottawa Senators right wing Connor Brown.

The Ottawa Senators and Connor Brown have a lot of work ahead of them to avoid arbitration.

In the briefs exchanged Tuesday morning before the arbitration hearing scheduled for Thursday, Postmedia has learned, the Senators have offered a salary of $2.25 million on a one-year deal for 2020-21, while winger Brown’s camp is asking for $4.8 million.

Naturally, there’s a lot of talking to be done to get a contract in place, but expect Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion and Brown’s agent Jeff Jackson to have discussions in the next couple of days. The player is always going to go into a salary arbitration hearing at a higher number, while the team will always be at the lower end.

In this case, the arbitrator can only award a one-year deal because Brown, 26, is one year away from unrestricted free agency, but he needs to be careful while negotiating in a difficult climate.

Filing for arbitration often spurs contract discussions and the two sides frequently reach an agreement before the hearing. In the past, the parties could negotiate in the 48 hours until the arbitrator handed down a decision, but that rule doesn’t exist this year.

The “walkaway number” for the Senators is $4.538 million, which, if Brown gets the number he wants from an arbitrator, means Ottawa could opt to allow him to become an unrestricted free agent. The risk is in becoming an UFA in a difficult environment for many players given that the National Hockey League has taken a huge hit because of COVID-19.

Still, if Brown’s camp had gone in at $4.5 million, there’d be no opportunity for Ottawa to walk away.

According to Puckpedia.com, if the Senators do walk away from the arbitrator’s award, the sides could still agree to a deal on the club’s initial offer. In this market, a guy like Brown may only get a one-year deal. The UFA market has been depressed by a flat cap, which will again be $81.5 million.

The belief in NHL circles is that a three-year deal with an average annual value of around $3.5 million would probably be enough to get this done for Brown. His qualifying offer as a restricted free agent was $1.6 million.

What Brown’s camp has to decide is if it really wants to go to arbitration. Senators head coach D.J. Smith made Brown an important player on this team last season and allowed him to play in every role. He finished with 16 goals and 27 assists for 43 points, a career high, in 71 games.

Acquired in the deal that also brought defenceman Nikita Zaitsev to Ottawa from the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, 2019, Brown was a strong addition, but the Senators still have to be careful because down the road, if all goes as planned, he’ll get pushed down the lineup.

Right now, he’s in a top-two line role. That’s going to change if the likes of Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson successfully push for roster spots. They’re projected to be offensive players in the NHL, which means down the road that a guy like Brown would be used more in a shutdown role.

If that’s not enough, No. 3 overall pick Tim Stuetzle is expected to join the Senators from Mannheim in the German league, and he’ll be used on the wing as well.

Arbitration can be a painful process because the team tells the judge what it thinks of the player, including his shortfalls. A league executive described Brown on Tuesday as “a useful player.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement and the Senators don’t want to overvalue him or get him signed to a deal they’re not going to like later.

There’s no question Brown is one of the club’s better players right now, but that’s not going to be the case forever if the rebuild continues as planned.

The guess is that Brown’s camp is looking at the likes of the $4.45 million that winger Alex Killorn will make with the Tampa Bay Lightning. With new Senators winger Evgenii Dadonov signed to a three-year deal worth $15 million, it’s hard to believe Brown’s salary would be close to that.

“The range is really crazy for guys like (Brown),” the executive said. “That pricing seems high. You’d like to think that anything in the upper $3 million range they should be able to get him on term.”

A high-end scorer in junior with 45 goals and 83 assists with the Erie Otters in 2013-14, Brown has been used mostly in a shutdown role in the NHL. He’s a hard worker at both ends and, with his status, it makes sense for both sides to talk about various contract terms.

If the Senators and Brown can’t come to an agreement, the other option for the club would be to allow his camp to speak with other NHL teams and then make a trade before the arbitration hearing. That likely isn’t an option here, but it’s something that’s available if the two sides really are far apart.

This will get resolved one way or another, and now there’s a deadline of Thursday’s hearing to get a deal in place as long as both sides find common ground.

Once Brown has been dealt with, Senators defenceman Christian Jaros is scheduled for an arbitraion hearing on Nov. 1, while centre Chris Tierney’s is set for Nov. 8.

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