WINNIPEG, MB – Andrew Copp’s arbitration case was one of the most interesting and impactful situations of the Winnipeg Jets offseason.
The cap savings the Jets were able to squeeze out of Copp’s arbitration hearing are critical. Those savings from Copp’s contract make just a little more room for Josh Morrissey’s eight-year, $6.25 million AAV contract extension. It should make room for Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine’s big-ticket RFA deals, too.
They make Copp feel an extremely wide range of emotions.
The road to Copp’s two-year, $2.28 million AAV arbitration award was a long one. It wasn’t always easy for Copp to wrap his head around — especially given that the day he received Winnipeg’s arbitration briefing (and the dollar figure it contained) was a day he’d have preferred to spend celebrating the success of one of his best friends. On July 19, the exact same day Jacob Trouba signed his seven-year, $8 million AAV contract extension in New York, Copp got his first look at Winnipeg’s two year, $1.5 million AAV offer.
It was tough to swallow for Copp and his agent Kurt Overhardt alike.
They told Ken Wiebe at the time that “We are going to arbitration and look forward to it.” They were, in Copp’s more recent words, going to war.
But why did it even get to that point? Two years and $2.28 million seems like a very reasonable deal for the 25-year-old forward — no matter which lens you look through. To use Evolving Wild’s frequently cited contract projections, a two-year deal for Copp should have cost Winnipeg $2.20 million per season.
That’s Copp’s eventual arbitration award, nearly on the nose.
To use Winnipeg’s own Adam Lowry as a comparable — a centre with slightly more points per game in his career and a similar reputation for driving play — $2.90 million strikes me as a fair ceiling. A $2.28 million deal for Copp strikes me as entirely reasonable in proportion to his linemate’s same earnings.
For some, the story gets more worrisome. Those who read Craig Custance’s story showing that two-thirds of players who make it to an arbitration hearing get traded within three seasons, it felt like an assurance Copp’s days in Winnipeg are numbered.
It happened to Trouba after all. And if Copp’s good friend followed his arbitration deal through to a trade request and a big-ticket signing with the Rangers, wouldn’t it make sense that Copp would try to follow suit?
Copp says no. In an interview with The Athletic this week, Copp detailed his reasons for choosing arbitration, the agony of feeling “disrespected” during the process, and even some parts of arbitration that flat out made him laugh. For Jets fans, it’s not all roses.
It’s also not something to fear.
Copp is a three-dimensional thinker who can see the positive elements of a negative situation and the negative elements of a positive situation. He is adamant that he’s not fleeing Winnipeg and that he completely understands the Jets’ position — that every little bit of cap savings helps the team fit Connor, Laine and Morrissey into their future plans.
“Before we get into how I felt disrespected, the team has to do what they have to do too,” Copp said. “We’re obviously in a numbers crunch and we have two guys that are not signed yet that are going to be important pieces of our team going forward.
“It’s hard to fault them for trying to save every possible dollar they can. I just wish I wasn’t the guy they grinded to the point where we had to go to arbitration.”
Here is how Copp’s arbitration hearing really went down, according to Copp himself.
Why choose arbitration at all?
As summer negotiations began, Copp and his team didn’t feel comfortable with any of the offers they had received. They looked at his uptick in point production at the end of the season — nearly half a point per game over his final 51 games, including the playoffs — and saw a sign his production is trending upwards.
The ask, according to Copp, wasn’t absurd.
“I believe in myself,” Copp said. “I know what my capabilities are. Obviously, I’m not asking to get paid Connor McDavid money but I felt like there was some wiggle room there. Especially with two of my (former) linemates in certain spots. If we look at what they were offering, it was half as much as the guy that was paid the least (Lowry) between my two linemates over the past two years.”
After acknowledging that Brandon Tanev — his other most frequent linemate over the past two years — had signed his deal as an unrestricted free agent, Copp said that he was hurt when he saw the Jets arbitration briefs. The ongoing RFA negotiations he had with Winnipeg weren’t as low as the Jets’ arbitration ask of two years, $1.5 million, but they weren’t what he thought he deserved.
“To be honest, I felt disrespected.”
Arbitration, then, was partly about finding the right venue to speak his mind.
“Someone’s coming to you and saying you only deserve this much,” Copp said. “And you get the opportunity to go in front of someone else and say why you deserve more. And it’s not just about the amount of money, it’s about the value they place behind that — where they see you going. It’s a lot more than just dollars and cents.”
On July 1, while sharing a car ride with his mom to the family cabin in Michigan, Copp’s curiosity got the better of him. He tuned into the live stream of Kevin Cheveldayoff’s media availability.
He says he completely understood at the time why Winnipeg would approach him with low contract offers but, as far as he was concerned, Cheveldayoff’s press conference was an opportunity to read the room.
“I wasn’t watching the entire thing,” Copp said. “But you want to see how we feel.
“July 1st is an important date when you look at the makeup of your team. You just want to know what’s going on — not that they give you guys everything but I wanted to see what they said. I was curious to see if they had asked about where we were at in contract talks and what their response was going to be — maybe get my blood boiling a little bit.”
To be clear, Copp laughed as he said that last bit. Still, he was fired up and ready to get to his arbitration hearing.
“This is my job. This is my livelihood. I love hockey. I’ve put in every ounce of effort over the past 10 years of my life working towards being an NHL player. It matters. And that’s why you take it to heart.”
Friday, July 19 — Receiving the briefs
Copp knew what to expect throughout arbitration. Not only was he in constant communication with Trouba leading up to his hearing, Copp directly observed a part of Trouba’s arbitration process the previous summer.
“I was actually in Toronto last year, working with Adam Oates the night before his hearing,” Copp said. “I went to dinner with him and our agent so I was up close and personal to everything that was going on. I watched him go through it so I knew it sucked but it was something I could mentally wrap my head around. I would say I was ready and prepared and knew what to expect, to a certain degree.”
Small world. But all of the expectations and communications in the world couldn’t prepare Copp for the initial emotional shock.
At 9:00 a.m. in Michigan, he was on his way to a workout with his trainer when a text came in. It was from Trouba.
“He’s like, ‘What did they come in at? Have you read the brief?’” Copp said. “I was like, ‘No, I haven’t gotten it yet. It probably just takes a couple of minutes.”
“He says, ‘OK, well call me — I want to see your face right after.’”
“I was like, all right?”
Copp continued to his workout. He knew the Jets’ briefing documents would get e-mailed to him any minute.
Still, he had a job to do.
He warmed up. He started his exercises. And then, partway through his workout, Overhardt sent him the email from Winnipeg. It’s wasn’t nearly as short as he expected it to be — it’s close to 50 pages instead of five. And seeing the players Winnipeg has compared him to hits Copp hard.
“My trainer saw me reading it,” Copp said. “And he kind of saw me fuming up a little bit. He said, ‘OK, go upstairs, get on the bike today. We don’t need you getting hurt or anything — just take it easy.’”
Copp followed his trainer’s orders but getting on the bike wasn’t enough to calm him down. He was so frustrated with the situation that he left Trouba on “read.”
“After that, I still wasn’t in the mental capacity to call Troubs yet but he texted me again: ‘It must have been pretty bad if I didn’t get a call.’”
And that’s when the emotional conflict took its next turn. On the same day Copp got his brief from the Jets — and the $1.5 million suggestion it contained — Trouba signed his seven-year, $56 million contract with New York. When Copp finally did get in touch with Trouba, he heard all about his friend’s good news. It was difficult to share in the joy.
“Oh man,” said Copp. “On the day when you read ($1.5 million) from your organization, you’re at the lowest of your lows. And then your best buddy is at the highest of his highs, signing his new deal in New York. It was an interesting day, that’s for sure.”
Then, as the day went on, Copp’s frustration turned into action. Instead of just reading over the Jets’ briefs and fuming, as was his first response, he decided to do his homework.
Through the rest of Friday afternoon and well into Friday evening, Copp crunched his numbers. Nobody knew his story better than him, he thought. And it was hard to just sit by and accept that somebody else would make his case for him. Copp went gamesheet by gamesheet through 2018-19, scouring his own stats for details that could help his case.
“I wasn’t going to allow myself to just sit there and think about it and do nothing while other people were working on my behalf.”
What did his agent, Kurt Overhardt, think of all of this? Did he support Copp’s commitment to his homework or did he just laugh it off?
At this, Copp laughs.
“I think it was a combination of things. He would just say, ‘Good stuff! Keep going!’ to anything I would send him. I would make up tables and send them over to him.”
“He was like, ‘I love this. We’ll have to get our interns to check it but keep going. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ Because who knows my story better than me, right? Who knows everything that’s gone on over the past few years, the numbers, everything like that? No one does better than I do so I felt like I should put my fingerprints on it.”
Saturday, July 20 — Trying to hammer out a deal
The offers Winnipeg made to Copp and his team weren’t nearly as low as the figures included in his arbitration briefs.
When Copp drove from Michigan to Toronto on the day before his hearing, he put aside his initial shock. He calmly made the drive into Canada, crossed the border and checked into his hotel. He talked to Overhardt and started to dissect some of the points the Jets had made in their briefs.
Upon Copp’s arrival in Toronto, he and his team went out for dinner. They even met with Cheveldayoff and assistant GM Larry Simmons in an attempt to come to an agreement before his arbitration hearing.
It wasn’t meant to be.
Were the Jets’ offers outside of arbitration as low as the $1.5 million they argued for in the hearing?
“No. But with that said, if you say one thing in private and you go out in public and tell the world it’s this, what’s the difference?”
Sunday, July 21 — The day of the hearing
Trouba gave Copp several pieces of advice heading into arbitration.
The most important? Get a good breakfast.
Copp’s hearing was a seven-hour marathon. At times it made him angry, it made him laugh, and as the day went on, it made him hungry. But in the end, he was prepared for war.
“It wasn’t us and them, it was us vs.them,” Copp said. “And getting the opportunity to make your points in front of management, I feel like you’ve got to put your heart and soul into it. It wasn’t something I was afraid of doing and it wasn’t something I was going to shy away from just to save face. I was doing what I fully believed I deserved.”
The hearing began at 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning in a Toronto hotel conference room. Copp, Overhardt and Overhardt’s assistant took their seat at the U-shaped table. Cheveldayoff, Simmonds and their lawyers sat down across from them. The arbitrator, of course, sat at the crux of the “U.”
The room was full — roughly 20 people, according to Copp — because in addition to the player, his representation, and Jets management, there was the arbitrator, his scribe, three lawyers from the NHLPA, four NHLPA interns and three NHL lawyers. That’s a lot of people on hand to take in one of the more frustrating days of your professional career.
And the coffee wasn’t even that good. Copp laughed when remembering it, mentioned that there were pastries in the room — not “quite donuts but something like that.”
Then he explained why the day took so long.
There is CBA-mandated procedure to arbitration which the NHL and NHLPA follow rigorously. Each side gets 90 minutes to make its case and its rebuttal to the other side’s case. Each side gets an additional 10 minutes to make a subrebuttal, upon hearing the other side’s initial rebuttal.
And, if the arbitrator has never heard an arbitration case before — as was the case between Copp and Winnipeg this summer — then each side gets 15 more minutes just to make sure everything goes smoothly.
There are mandated breaks. Lunch is provided. And of course there is the debate which occasionally gets heated.
“I felt Kurt, especially, was fantastic in terms of dealing with Winnipeg,” said Copp. “I felt like he was fighting very hard for what we believed in and he believed in my game. It was like ‘This is why this guy is my agent. This guy goes to bat for me.’”
The arguments and the comparisons to lesser players were not shocking to Copp. Overhardt had prepared him for that.
Copp knew that Winnipeg would compare him to players paid as little as possible, just as Copp’s side would argue his performance was worth as much money as possible. But as the day went on and those arguments ran their course, Copp quickly realized that arbitration itself was only part of the work he’d have to do that day. Players and teams are allowed to come to an agreement outside of arbitration right up until the award is announced 48 hours after the hearing.
That negotiations for a non-arbitration contract — at much bigger dollar amounts — continued separately from the hearing itself was a little bit jarring.
“The weird part is that there are negotiations going on during the breaks,” Copp said. “Then you come back and what they just said three minutes ago is no longer valid. And now they’re coming back at whatever number they were at before. And we’re doing the same thing, too. We’re coming down from our number and then we go back in and say the other number.”
Surely, that must be difficult to keep track of. Did he feel like Winnipeg was treating him fairly?
“I don’t necessarily think it’s OK but it’s the process, right? And both sides are doing it. Both sides are guilty of it. It was just interesting hearing them to go from one spot to another — and we were doing it too, so it’s not like I can blame them. It’s just an interesting dynamic of figuring out a contract.”
Copp and the Jets tried but were unable to agree to contract terms on their own.
The most surprising part, to Copp, was how low Winnipeg went and the players they compared him to. The most frustrating part was that the arbitration offer was less than half the RFA deal of Lowry, his good friend and longtime linemate.
The funniest part was seeing just how much the presentation of different stats could be used to distort the truth.
“Oh yeah,” said Copp, laughing, when asked if he found any part of the process so ridiculous that it became funny. “I don’t remember what I laughed at the most but, I don’t know, you’re basically preaching to one person why you think you’re great at hockey and they’re preaching why you’re not as valuable as you think you are.”
“The one in particular that I’m thinking of: You show a graph and how a graph can be manipulated to make it look better or worse depending on how big the bars are and where the graph starts. Just little things like that, I thought were funny.”
Lies, damned lies and statistics, I think the saying goes.
When the hearing was all said and done, Copp’s emotions took hold. He shook hands with Cheveldayoff and Simmonds. He said goodbye to Overhardt and checked out of his hotel. It was a long drive home from Toronto to Michigan.
The next 48 hours were difficult. Copp hashed and rehashed everything that went on during the hearing. Time passed slowly.
“I was thinking about everything that was said,” he explained. “I was thinking about where it would end up. (Those two days) were filled with calls to my dad, my brother, friends from back home, Troubs, Scheifs, yeah.”
The award came in late on Tuesday afternoon. Two years, $2.28 million. Winnipeg quickly accepted.
Copp says he feels no regret. He had said his piece, and in that process, found his peace.
He doesn’t expect Winnipeg feels regret, either.
“They got me at a manageable number for them in terms of knowing where I’m at for the next two years — especially with Kyle and Patrik coming up. There’s a lot of unknowns so figuring it out that way for them, I’m sure it was very worth it. Like I said earlier, I don’t hold hard feelings or anything like that — especially going forward.”
Let’s look forward for a moment.
This calls Copp’s future into question … Doesn’t it?
Here is Copp’s answer to that question, unedited:
“No. That’s not a part of my thinking at all. We were hoping to sign longer than two years for sure. We’re at a place where I’ve learned my way around the city a little bit. I’ve got friends here. I’m definitely not asking for a trade or anything like that. I’m not crossing this city off the list of places for when I have the opportunity to go whichever direction I want. When the time comes again in two years, hopefully we’re at a place where I’m happy with my role and my value here and they’re happy with where I’m at and we can come to some sort of agreement.
“I’m going to tell you every emotion I felt during arbitration but I’m also logical enough to know that, if it was a different team, it could have ended up being the same thing. I’m logical enough to know that if this is a good fit over the next two years and I see a spot that I’d like to be in, I like my role, I like my value, it’s definitely a place where I’d be willing to stay and sign another deal.
“I’m logical enough to know it was worth it probably for them too in the short term. I’m not going to close the door on it because of what happened two years ago. I’m going to take it one day at a time here and move our relationship forward and hopefully it turns out well over the next few years.”