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When is an RFA really a UFA?

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This is not about shopping for bargains, at least not the way we usually think of a bargain.

Toronto Maple Leafs v San Jose Sharks Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images

In 2019, the theory — largely advanced by Bob McKenzie — was that RFAs with star power had negotiating power too, and the good old days of obedient young players allowing themselves to be squeezed on salary were over. The classic example of a player unhappily squeezed is Nikita Kucherov, who was backed into a bridge deal in 2016 for a very paltry $4.77 million. Steve Yzerman accomplished that task by making it clear he would let Kucherov sit out if he didn’t solve their cap problems by earning less than the KHL would pay him for three years.

Pre-Pandemic Contracts

By the time 2019 rolled around, Kucherov had already re-signed for $9.5 million for eight years with a lot trade protection baked in, and the Lightning still had a tight salary cap. But McKenzie’s point was that if a player gets favourable circumstances — a team that can’t really do without him and isn’t willing to burn a year — he can play the hold out game and win as William Nylander showed in 2018.

There’s a narrative now that only Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews signed big pre-pandemic RFA deals while every other player was a discount bargain deal. McKenzie was wrong, and Dubas is just a bad negotiator, and Lou woulda got those youngsters to sign a cheap deal.

The truth is agents and teams agreed to deals for a few big RFAs in 2019 that avoided the cap-killing AAV, but were built to get the player more money over the full length of his career. They were a different sort of short-term deal to Matthews’ five-year deal. Many fans were upset that Matthews wasn’t forced in some unspecified way to sign longer term for the same AAV. He chose to ignore what seemed like a very small risk of the salary cap not rising regularly, and gambled on getting an even bigger contract next time. He might have lost that bet, we’ll find out when his deal expires and he re-signs. But for other RFAs, they wrote their future contract demands right into the deals they signed in 2019.

These scorpion deals were structured so they expired with the player an RFA with arbitration rights and the biggest salary in the final year. We saw such backloaded deals a lot last year, and we will again, as players opt to not lose money now to bigger escrow percentages, but the 2019 motivation wasn’t about escrow, it was all about the next deal. These contracts were backloaded to the maximum allowed limits under the existing CBA at that time, and they set up the Qualifying Offer on expiry to be very large. QOs are based on the salary, not the AAV, and they are at least the prior year’s total cash salary. When a player goes to arbitration with that QO, he’s not going to get less than that amount, so the seeming bargain was a guarantee of at least one year at the higher rate tacked onto the end of his short-term deal.

General Managers agreed to these deals, instead of forcing the player in some unspecified way to do something better for the team, as a way to kick the negotiating can down the road to a time when they believed the salary cap would have risen, and they’d have a certainty about the player they lacked in 2019. Their hope was, of course, that the next deal based around that sting in the tail final year’s salary would look fair as the player developed into a star. The GMs, in other words, bet like Matthews did on the cap going up.

Now these teams are facing expiring RFAs with a lot of cash owed to them, huge QOs due in 2022 or 2023 and no expectation the salary cap will rise to make that all seem plausible. They’re also broke. Every team in the NHL, even the richest, have income shortfalls, huge losses and are dependent on the debt load they can carry and the depth of the ownership’s pockets — and the ownership’s willingness to fund the team like it’s 2019.

The New World

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the new CBA changed the rules to make the QO 120% of the AAV at most. But that change does not affect deals signed before that MOU was agreed to. The old scorpion contracts are sitting there waiting to sting the GMs who signed them, and maybe the players too.

Brayden Point signed one of these deals with the cap-strapped lightning. It looks like a hometown discount of the highest order and makes Leafs fans wail in despair, but the cash salary in this coming year is $9 million, and Point will expire as an arbitration eligible RFA due to get a lot more than the $6.75 AAV on his current deal. Tampa also has to pay him all that cash this coming season.

Boo hoo, though. What wouldn’t you pay for Point right now?

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, Jim Benning bet on Brock Boeser and isn’t as thrilled as Tampa. His $5.875 AAV deal expires next summer with a QO due of $7.5 million. Vancouver often gets disappointed in players after they’ve signed them to big deals, but Boeser has been a very consistent producer of 15 to 25 goals, has never played an 82 game season, and is likely paid a little too much at the current AAV amount. They won’t want him for $7.5 million, and it’s highly unlikely anyone else will either.

Boeser was rumoured to be on the market last offseason, but Vancouver either couldn’t move him or realized they have no players to move up. He’s played almost his entire career with Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller or Bo Horvat, meaning he’s never the best player on his line, and his only skill, according to deeper analysis of his results, is his effect on Goals For. He’s a player who fits in as the third best player on a top line, but not at what he’s paid now. If he was a left wing, this article might be about him. But it’s possible to see someone trading for him, as a faux UFA.

We already saw GMs leaving playable RFAs unqualified last offseason because of mistake contracts. Those players signed bargain deals and eventually revealed their true worth. That’s exactly what should happen with Boeser when his deal expires, but there’s no reason Vancouver has to be the team to experience that to the bitter end. They could sell him on his goal totals to someone this summer. After all they can just re-sign Jimmy Vesey if they need a winger.

The Leafs don’t want Boeser, not until he’s a lot cheaper, but they might be interested in the biggest scorpion deal of all: left-shooting winger Timo Meier.

Timo Meier

Meier’s deal, signed on July 1, 2019, has an AAV of $6 milliion and runs for two more seasons. That’s not an easy number for the Leafs to fit on the roster. If it was, they’d likely re-sign Zach Hyman, but they wouldn’t get Hyman for two years, they’d be paying him $4-something into his dotage. Meier turns 25 this season, and is likely one of the youngest players that could be had with some reasonable salary and at least two years. He’s also somewhere in hailing distance of William Nylander in value and is entering his sixth NHL season, so he knows his way around a rink.

If he was one year older and a UFA on expiry of his current deal, he’d be a strong consideration for a trade target for everyone who has noticed the Sharks are hopeless, but RFAs are harder and more expensive to pry loose from teams, so it’s a tougher deal to make.

Timo Meier’s QO in 2023 is going to be $10 million, however, and that changes the picture rather a lot. He’s a very good player, and on the very bad and dull Sharks team he almost seems to have grown into that money. If the cap in 2023 were to be $88 million or so, as was reasonably forecast, the Sharks could keep him, pay him $10 by 8 on his next deal and hope their drafted prospects were making them competitive before it looks like an albatross. But do they want that salary cap anchor now in the new world?

In addition to that little problem for them, they owe him $16 million of his $24 million total salary in the next two years. In other words, they’ve only paid him $8 million so far. At this point, he’s morphing from a bargain player into a money and cap problem both, and if they could be persuaded to wave goodbye to him — not something teams do very often with good RFAs — he’d be an excellent addition to a team less afraid of the cash commitment, and willing to either talk him down off the $10 million in two years or let him walk.

He’s not a two-way forward, he’s not defensibly responsible, but he is very good at producing offence, and an offence producer in the top six is what’s going to be missing on the Leafs with Hyman gone. Betting on Meier involves a belief that the Leafs actually do need more than four players with high-level offensive skills, and also that, on a team with better systems and teammates, Meier will look even better than he does now.

It’s extremely difficult to find highly-skilled players, at any mix of skills, who are 25 or younger. Usually a team needs to be selling off a UFA and getting back a prospect RFA to end up with someone that good you didn’t draft yourself. But when circumstances conspire to make a player like this potentially available, it has to be considered.

Meier is that rare RFA who is like a UFA and might be worth the trade cost to have for only two years. Make no mistake, it would be a painful cost involving actual prospects of value, not whoever is on the Leafs roster you don’t like. But the contract might make Meier the most affordable good player on the market, if the Sharks are ready to deal.