It’s September and training camp is two weeks away. Teams are deep into their “informal” practice sessions before camp begins, so the rosters are all set, and everyone’s cap situation is sorted, right?
This is all part of the new world of RFA contracts ushered in by Auston Matthews, where players want more money and no longer think the security or status of maximum term contracts works in a long-term strategy to maximize their earnings. It’s not just the players and their agents driving this phenomenon; the CBA also bears some of the blame as well.
September 1, Labour Day, was the deadline for the league to opt out of the current CBA and have a 2020 termination date on the deal. The league chose not to exercise that opt out, and the NHLPA is meeting tomorrow to discuss their position. Their deadline is September 15 to opt out or not, and the word is that there is some kind of deal in the works to extend the current CBA to 2022. It’s entirely possible that deal could get done before training camp starts, or at a minimum, the NHLPA deadline will be extended.
For RFAs contemplating their first big contract, there’s no reason to sign one now, when in a few weeks they could know for sure if they’ll even need to be discussing lockout protection, or in what year it should fall.
The smaller than anticipated salary cap is also playing a role in the current state of affairs. The fact that the cap is anticipated to rise by a great deal in coming years due to the new US television deal is also key to many players’ feelings that they want their contracts to have that inflation factored in ahead of time. They don’t want the final years of their deals to look like bargains because they think three years of an ELC is enough of a bargain for teams.
At time of writing, there were 26 unsigned RFAs who had games played in the NHL last year, a lot more UFAs, and at least two teams who can’t become cap compliant with a 23-man roster in any obvious way. At least one team with a top-ranked RFA doesn’t seem to have the cap space to sign him and then make a 23-man roster. Moves need to be made, and a lot of deals need to get signed.
Mitch Marner gets all the attention because he’s in Toronto and because his agent sought out a lot of attention, but he’s only one of many. The many other RFAs are supposedly waiting on the Marner contract to set the top end of the market, and I suspect that the weak offer sheet Sebastian Aho signed is somewhere around the bottom of the market for the cream of the crop.
It makes sense that the Leafs would like to see some more players of Marner’s calibre signed before they try very hard to get him to pick up a pen. But in reality, there are two separate groups of players eyeing each other up as comparables and daring each other to go first.
Zach Werenski is waiting, possibly on Ivan Provorov, who is possibly waiting on him. But as the top defender on the list of unsigned RFAs, judging by last year’s points, Werenski’s got to have expectations of a salary something like Seth Jones’ deal only grossed up to 2019 dollars.
Columbus is a budget team, with not one player making even $6 million now that they’ve lost their two stars. And while they have a heap of cap space because of those exits, they don’t seem to want to spend it on Werenski. Or anyone else. They’re a team leaving wins on the table with almost $16 million unspent and only one guy to sign.
Anthony Deangelo should be in excellent shape to get overpaid. Even though he’s on his third NHL team already, he’s coming off a year where his points were inflated by a host of second assists and a slight boost in ice time.
The Rangers have maxed out their cap, however, and had to buy out Kevin Shattenkirk, just to make the players they do have fit. They aren’t going to offer a depth defender a big raise when they also have depth forward Brendan Lemieux to sign as well.
There’s a lot of Rangers fans who believe hard in Deangelo, but I’m not sure the Rangers do, particularly not since they signed Adam Fox.
Charlie McAvoy has been quietly sitting around unsigned. He had a good season, a good playoffs, and he’s the poster boy for the Bruins style, but is he worth star defender wages? Fellow defender Brandon Carlo is also waiting for a deal, and these two might be playing the defencemen waiting game along with Provorov and Werenski.
The Bruins have $7 million in space on a 23-man roster with only some low-paid depth likely to be cut from that list. They don’t seem primed to give either of these players a lucrative overpay, but they have the space for both. In any other season, they’d be signed already.
Ivan Provorov is in the classic position where a bridge deal of some kind seems inevitable. His season was terrible, but few have decided that it was a typical performance. The Flyers also have a small problem with cap space. With only 19 players on their Cap Friendly roster, they have just over $13 million in space, but they also have to sign Travis Konecny. By the time you start chopping that 13 million up into a chunk for him with some more for two other cheap depth players, the amount left for Provorov isn’t going to be large. The Flyers, who have a lot of expensive forwards at the top end, also have to find some cash to pay Nolan Patrick next year. This brave new world of RFA deals is unlikely to be just a one-year phenomenon.
The list of unsigned forwards is a who’s who of talent that only begins with Marner’s 94 points. He’s not the first in points per game, either, there’s two ahead of him who haven’t been hurrying to negotiate their new deals either.
Brayden Point, who gets to pay Florida taxes — and we all know the main goal in life is to die having paid the least tax, right? — is generally thought to be likely to sign for a number low enough to make every other team wince. The interesting thing about Point is that he’s a centre, not a winger; he’s very good, maybe the best unsigned RFA left; and he should, by measures of fairness, get more than anyone else. Life ain’t fair.
The Lightning are ready for him to make a decision; they sorted out their cap flexibility with the Callahan trade, swapped out Adam Erne to the Red Wings so they could sign Kevin Shattenkirk out from under everyone’s noses, and they have not quite $8.5 million to sign Point. They can make some more space by moving out the overpaid backup they just got in Mike Condon.
All the other teams want Point to go first, all the other players don’t. Point just gets to do what’s best for him, like how he reportedly turned down an offer sheet from Montréal.
Mikko Rantanen, a winger who is right there neck-and-neck with Marner in quality of his most recent season, is the last unsigned player on the Avalanche. They have a massive $16 million plus in cap space, and seem to be leaving money, and therefore wins, on the table this year.
The Avalanche used to very seriously enforce an internal salary cap by refusing to pay anyone over $6 million. That explains Nathan MacKinnon’s absurdly low salary and Ryan O’Reilly’s Stanley Cup ring. They had fairly plausible reasons for operating with a lower salary than other teams, but now it looks like they should be striking while the iron is hot, and yet they are... not doing that. Not yet, anyway.
Rantanen has a very tough-minded agent, and yet he also deeply and genuinely loves his team. It will be very interesting to see how he reconciles his desire to play in Denver and with Gabriel Landeskog forever with his natural desire to get paid like the star he is. It’s not getting any press, but his dilemma is identical to Marner’s even if the teams are in very different situations.
Matthew Tkachuk gets no press or negative attention about his contract, and I sincerely hope he razzes Marner about that non-stop. The news cycle flows to the centre of gravity by nature, but really, it is the Flames who have some issues to solve, and yet the shouting about “having to trade” someone is always tinged blue. The Flames have a paltry $7.7 million in cap space and a 20-man roster with Juuso Valimaki on the injured list. In addition to Tkachuk, they have to sign Andrew Mangiapane, and I totally admit I have no idea who that is. It seems close to certain that the Flames will be forced to trade a player.
Tkachuk was a whisper below a point per game in the NHL last year, and no one ever complains about his size, truculence or anything much at all other than his suspension history. He’s not coming cheap. The Flames tried to trade TJ Brodie to the Leafs (thank you, Naz, for vetoing that deal), so at one time it seemed inevitable that they would move either him or Travis Hamonic and promote some of their promising young players higher up the roster. Valimaki’s injury has caused them to pivot to... signing Andrew MacDonald to a PTO, giving everyone whiplash.
How they’re sorting out their cap troubles now is a very big question, one Tkachuk would like them to answer.
Kyle Connor flies under the radar because he’s got two boring first names and plays in Winnipeg. He also plays with the loud and unsigned Patrik Laine. The two of them need deals on a team that has the cap space for both, but won’t want to overpay either of them, not when they have to pay Blake Wheeler into his dotage at $8.25 million.
The Wheeler deal sets a bar, though, and Laine will want to be over it. He’s got the hardest negotiating position of any of these RFAs, worse even than Provorov, after his brutally bad season, and he is expected to take a short bridge deal. Connor is hard to judge, particularly on a team that was allegedly trying to trade away one of their only good young players under term in Nic Ehlers after they botched the Trouba trade. It’s hard to tell what the Jets are trying to do. Perhaps the answer is: Run a team on a budget without looking like that’s what they’re doing.
Brock Boeser is in the unenviable position of trying to get a good deal out of Vancouver, when they don’t like paying big money to anyone under 30 or six-eight. The Canucks can’t ditch Loui Eriksson, and they have $5 million in space on an overstuffed 24-man roster with another RFA to sign after Boeser. He is going to get nickle-and-dimed by the team paying six million for Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel who just rewarded the GM who signed all of their bad deals with an extension.
Travis Konecny, who had a points pace the same as Laine’s while actually playing some hockey as well, is patiently waiting to see how the Flyers plan to split their $13 million in cap space, between him, Provorov, and some depth. Youth of quality is not something the Flyers are oversupplied with, so it seems like this should be an easy pair of deals to get done, but everyone is just waiting, so the Flyers wait too.
Kevin Fiala had to drum his fingers and wait for the Wild to replace the GM who traded for him and was then fired. Now that his agent has someone to call up, I don’t envy him that negotiation. The Wild have $8 million in space to split between Fiala and some depth to flesh out their roster, but they might want to try recouping some of the value the guy they just canned traded away by adding someone more than just a depth guy. Good luck with that, and good luck to Fiala in getting a good deal.
Adrian Kempe is 13th on this list by points with 28 in 81 games, but if you can’t remember who he is, that’s because he’s put up two solid years in LA on a team in free fall. The Kings have more than enough cap space to sign him, and they clearly intend to do that. Generally a team doesn’t sign a guy’s brother as a prelude to trading him as the Kings did when they acquired Mario Kempe. This deal should be done already, but it’s fashionable to wait this year, and LA is a fashionable town.
Other than Provorov, who just had a terrible year, the bottom half of the list is second, third and fourth tier players. The fact there is another dozen more is the surprising thing, and many teams have one or two not very important players sitting there waiting. The only publicly difficult relationship is with Jesse Puljujarvi, who has already started his season with Kärpät in the Ligga. He’ll never play for Edmonton again, that much is clear.
Backed up waiting behind the lesser RFAs is all of the former RFAs who did not receive a qualifying offer. They’re now the youngest UFAs available, and they usually get snapped up for depth roles or AHL jobs. Some of them have taken spots in other leagues, but there’s a lot of them waiting on teams who are waiting on other players and haven’t gotten to sorting out their AHL team yet..
Also waiting are the UFAs at the other end of the age list. Jake Gardiner is the best left unsigned, but there are others who played significant roles last season, who are either waiting on a team to sort out their cap space, like Joe Thornton likely is, or who might be mulling retirement. It’s hard to imagine some of them even getting an offer of PTO, given the other options still available this season, and this might be the year where not only do the young stars run up salaries and delay the signing season into training camp, they might also force teams to stop overpaying older players for the sake of filling roster spots. On the other hand: Andrew MacDonald.
Labour Day in Canada traces its origins to a parade in Toronto in 1872 when the Typographical Union were demanding a reduction to a 58-hour work week. The world has changed a lot since then, and typographers aren’t the only occupation that’s vanished. It’s easy to decide that that historical exercise of labour rights was good and noble, but a soon to be millionaire hockey player should just sign his contract for a nice low price to prove he loves the fans. But labour rights include the right to collectively bargain that CBA (which really needs some tougher rules on these pre-training-camp practices) which has set up this system of negotiation without arbitration and with a deadline after the season starts.
Labour rights under this CBA also include the right for a player to sign for less than he could earn elsewhere like Point might do, or to demand an absurd amount over the market rate or anything in between.
Who signs for less, more, or exactly what they’re worth will be decided on or before December 1, but my bet is no one but Puljujärvi will go past opening day without a North American deal. If the NHL and the NHLPA come to a deal quickly to extend the CBA, expect the signings to begin. Just don’t expect Marner to go first.
Which top forward RFA signs first?