The Maple Leafs have nine restricted free agents (RFAs) to sign this off-season, and many of them have arbitration rights. While the William Nylander deal and speculation about extensions for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will occupy a lot of attention, the rest of the list is important as well.
All RFAs must receive a Qualifying Offer by June 26, 2018. If the RFA does not receive the QO, they become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. However, they can still sign with their original team. RFAs may also sign at any time for any amount. The QO is not a minimum for a voluntary deal, it merely retains the team’s rights to the player.
RFAs who turn down the QO do not become UFAs.
The QO amount is based on the player’s base salary, and must be at least the mandated minimum, which is $650,000 in 2018.
For some players under a minimum of NHL games played or who have not cleared waivers in the previous season, the QO must be a one-way deal.
For players with arbitration rights, they or the team may elect to go to arbitration and those hearings are usually held in August. Most players settle before the hearing takes place. Contracts that are decided by arbitration are restricted to one or two years depending on who elects the arbitration. Contracts from settlements are not restricted in that way.
The NHL RFAs
Nylander’s QO amount is $874,125 which I’m telling you so we can laugh about it. Obviously, he will receive a one-way deal, and his contract may be anywhere up to 8 years. It’s going to be millions, and it’s only a question of how many. This deal will take as long as it takes to work out, so he might be issued with that QO as a formality. Nylander does not have arbitration rights.
Carrick’s QO amount is $892,500. His current AAV is only $750,000 on a one-way deal, but he has played only 130 NHL games for the Leafs, plus six playoff games last year. He played fewer games this season than last. Because he never cleared waivers, his new deal must be a one-way.
Carrick does have arbitration rights, but he doesn’t have a track record or stats to sell a big increase over what the team would likely offer him.
We should expect him to be qualified, but it’s also most likely that the Leafs will eventually offer him a low-cost, short-term deal. I don’t expect him to sign very quickly unless the Leafs want him signed and available to trade.
Johnsson is straddling the middle ground between the NHL and the AHL, but he played successfully in the playoffs, and looks to be a strong contender for a roster spot next year.
His QO amount is $787,500 and he does not have arbitration rights. He’s in the tricky spot of having performed really well, while still being somewhat of an unknown quantity. We should expect him to also be signed for a two-year deal for a modest amount over his QO. But the real question with him is two-way or not?
He’s not waiver exempt next season, so the Leafs have an incentive to keep him on the NHL roster. They could choose to symbolically reward him with a one-way deal, knowing they aren’t going to expose him to waivers, or they could choose to make earning the one-way deal on the next contract after this one the goal he’s striving for.
The AHL RFAs
Marincin’s QO is $1,300,000, which is just over his current AAV by $50,000.
That’s way too much money for a defender who couldn’t earn an NHL job on the Leafs. I don’t expect the Leafs to qualify him. While he does have arbitration rights, he has absolutely no hope of winning a settlement over the QO. But he could force the Leafs to give him that QO by exercising his rights.
I think the chance of Marincin playing for Slovan Bratislava next year is higher than the odds that he stays on the Leafs roster. I don’t expect him to be qualified.
Pickard’s case is tricky to figure out. He was acquired as insurance and then underused, playing one NHL game and taking second chair to Garret Sparks in the AHL. His QO is $1,075,000, which is $50,000 over the amount you can bury in the AHL next season. He does have arbitration rights, but has little to base a demand on.
The question for him might be does he want a chance to play his way into a soon to be vacant backup job on the Leafs, and if so, what kind of deal will he take to do that?
For the Leafs, the smart play here is to qualify all their goalies, get them signed to reasonable deals, and then deal off the excess in training camp when their value is highest and other teams are desperate.
I expect to see Pickard take a one-year deal and roll the dice on his ability to win the job of staying on the NHL roster. You have to think that way to succeed as a goalie, and any one of them will believe he can do it.
Last year, when Sparks was given a one-way deal for the second year of his two-year contract, the assumption in the press was that he was being anointed the new backup. I don’t think the Leafs ever make assumptions like that, and I don’t think they have a plan now to do anything but hold a contest for that job.
In addition to Sparks on that one-way deal, Curtis McElhinney is under contract for the 2018-2019 season as well.
Kaskisuo spent most of the past season on loan to the Chicago Wolves. He played well there on a team that wasn’t as good as the Marlies, but he did not appear even as a backup in their three playoff games as they were swept in the first round. He did not return to the Marlies after his season there was over.
He also has arbitration rights, and his QO amount is $874,125, which puts him in the affordable AHLer range.
Unless something is going on there beyond the Leafs having a surplus and loaning him out rather than have him waste his time in the ECHL, I expect him to sign some sort of short and reasonable deal, avoid arbitration, and then join the goalie hunger games at training camp.
Because of his age, Aaltonen’s ELC was only for one year, so he is now an expired RFA with arbitration rights even though he just arrived on the team. His QO amount is $874,125 and he has had an excellent AHL season, holding down the memorial Mark Arcobello position of 1C through the full season and the playoffs.
That’s not really the kind of season that gets you a good arbitration result, but it is the sort of performance that should earn Aaltonen a contract if he wants another try at making the Leafs in training camp. There aren’t exactly a lot of centres in the Leafs system right now, but what about a few months from now? He may gamble on another year but find people have been brought in over his head.
Qualifying him seems obvious, but after that, it’s not easy to say what sort of deal will keep him away from what are sure to be serious KHL offers.
One of only three RFAs without arbitration rights, Gauthier’s QO amount is small at only $874,125. Qualifying him is a no-brainer, since centres are the rarest thing on the Leafs.
The issue with Gauthier is more about his lack of waiver exemption next year and what future the team thinks he has now that’s he’s had his second NHL audition. I wouldn’t expect him to be given a very large contract, a very long one, or something that isn’t two-way. The issue of getting him through waivers will be a problem for the future, but the idea that he could win an NHL roster spot in training camp seems very far-fetched.
Holl has a QO amount of $715,000. However, at 26, he’s of an age where if he’s going to be in the AHL in a leadership role, he might want something more than the AHL salary of $175,000 he earned this year. His contract negotiation will likely be more about either upping that side of a two-way deal or making his contract a one-way in recognition of his contributions to the Marlies.
He loses his waiver exemption at the beginning of next year too, and a one-way deal makes him less attractive to a team looking for a desperation depth defender to grab. Holl will be a UFA at the end of his next contract as well, so that may play into what he wants to sign and what the Leafs want to offer.
With so-many arbitration eligible players, the potential is certainly there for some of these negotiations to get testy and end up at least on the list of arbitration cases. The Leafs are also not likely to be offering any deals here similar to the Connor Brown or Zach Hyman deals of last season. That kind of money is going to come up next summer with Kasperi Kapanen.
The most interesting cases, after the big one, are Johnsson and Carrick, two players who contributed more to the Leafs than Josh Leivo, and who will be looking at his $925,000 salary next year with expectations of at least matching that.