Updated 9:30 a.m. Monday:
Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka, who will play the 2014-15 season in Russia, received a one-year arbitration award today worth $2,725,000.
The contract will be carried over until Sobotka returns to the NHL. A restricted free-agent with the Blues, he signed a three-year contract with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League earlier this month, but the deal has an out clause that can be executed after each season.
"We are looking forward to having Vladimir in a Blues uniform when he returns to the NHL," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said in a statement. "We wish him the best of luck in the upcoming season."
The Blues' best offer on a one-year contract was $2.7 million, but Sobotka, who was requesting $3 million, rejected the proposal and negotiations broke down. With today's news, Sobotka will make slightly more than the Blues' offer for one season after his return and then become eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Here is our earlier story on the Blues' arbitration case with Sobotka:
On the surface, the arbitration case between the Blues and Vladimir Sobotka scheduled today in Toronto seems moot.
Sobotka signed a three-year, $12 million contract with Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League and will play the 2014-15 season in Russia. In fact, he’s already reported to Omsk’s training camp.
The Blues have moved on as well, re-signing forward Steve Ott to a two-year, $5.2 million contract, a deal that would not have been consummated had Sobotka returned.
So, the result of today’s scheduled hearing, in which an arbiter will decide Sobotka’s salary when he returns to the NHL, will have no bearing on the Blues’ upcoming season.
A restricted free agent, Sobotka will owe the Blues one season, meaning that his contract will be carried over until he returns and he’ll be the team’s property at the compensation determined by the arbiter.
But in a negotiation that deteriorated quickly, today’s scheduled hearing and its aftermath will determine whether Sobotka, 27, ever wears a Blues sweater again — he could elect not to return unless the team trades him.
Petr Svoboda, Sobotka’s agent, told the Post-Dispatch recently that he asked the Blues for a trade when an agreement couldn’t be reached before the forward signed in the KHL.
Svoboda didn’t return multiple messages left Sunday, and Sobotka has been unavailable. But in a story on the Czech website, iSport.cz, Sobotka indicated that his plan is to play one season in Russia and then return to the NHL with a different team.
Sobotka is quoted as saying, in fact, that he had no choice but to sign with Omsk because the Blues refused to trade him. His agent told iSport.cz that the team “didn’t even want to hear about (a trade).”
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has gone out of his way to point out that the team is keeping the door open for Sobotka’s eventual return. Armstrong even reached out to him recently, although he failed to make contact.
“We haven’t talked yet,” Armstrong said. “I think he actually might have already gone to training camp. I left him a message, just thanking him, wishing him well and telling him we’d stay in touch ... but no need to call back.”
While the Blues would like to have Sobotka back, the club is standing by its decision to not cave in on contract talks with the threat of him playing in the KHL looming over the negotiations.
Both Armstrong and Svoboda confirmed that the Blues’ best offer on a one-year contract was $2.7 million, an increase from the team’s initial offer of $2.4 million. Sobotka was asking for $3 million for one year, after which he would have became an unrestricted free agent.
In the end, the difference was $300,000, but after coming up from $2.4 million, the Blues saw the split as $600,000, and with Sobotka being a restricted free agent who averaged $1.3 million on his most recent contract, the club drew the line.
Sobotka recorded a career-high nine goals and 33 points in 2013-14, but his comparables around the NHL suggest that he will receive less than $3 million in arbitration.
“We have to at least work in somewhat of the framework of the (collective bargaining agreement),” Armstrong said. “If we work outside of that based on people leaving, then everyone will threaten to leave. It’s just bad business for us. We have to do things that are hard decisions and they’re difficult.”
The Blues also made a two-year offer to Sobotka for $6 million, but it was not accepted. That contract would have paid him $3 million each season, but since he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, the sentiment in Sobotka’s camp was that he could command more in the second year.
Sobotka’s three-year deal in the KHL will pay him slightly more than $4 million a season. It does have an “out” clause, in which he can elect to leave after each of the first two years. But if and when Sobotka comes back to the NHL, he will make the salary awarded today.
If $2.7 million is close to the arbiter’s figure, then Sobotka’s decision to play in Russia — assuming it’s just for one year — would seem to be a questionable one. He could have accepted the Blues’ offer of $2.7 million for the 2014-15 season and then become a free agent.
Now, Sobotka will be returning at potentially that same price and won’t be able to hit the open market in the NHL for two years minimum.
“I just tried to give him our point of view on why coming back here — even on a one-year deal — would be beneficial,” Armstrong said. “Ultimately, he was dealing with two leagues. I’m dealing with one league. I have to work under the parameters given to this league. I wanted to stretch to the absolute end of fairness under our collective bargaining agreement. I can’t and I don’t think we should be asked to negotiate against the KHL.”
There remains a chance that the Blues and Sobotka reach a settlement before arbitration, but if so, it’s unlikely that it would be announced beforehand because it could negate his KHL contract.
At this point, the Blues seem resigned to the fact that Sobotka will be gone this season, and they’re taking the high road to what they hope will be a return to St. Louis.