I started my summer holiday July 3 with so many of the high-profile RFAs nowhere close to being signed.
Two months later it’s Sept. 3, and Brayden Point (Tampa Bay), Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary), Mitch Marner (Toronto), Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), Patrik Laine (Winnipeg), Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), Brock Boeser (Vancouver), Zach Werenski (Columbus), Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia), Travis Konecny (Philadelphia), Charlie McAvoy (Boston) and there’s more … they all remained unsigned.
We’ve written for the past 12 months about how this class of high-end RFA coming out of their entry-level deals was going to overhaul the system, or at least attempt to.
Now comes crunch time. Camp is around the corner. The regular season starts next month. For these negotiations, this is go-time.
If anyone thought the offer sheet signing of Sebastian Aho matched by Carolina and the re-signing of Timo Meier in San Jose both in early July was going to help fast track any of these other RFA situations, well, they were wrong.
“It’s tough to say,’’ Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said on Tuesday morning when I asked him what he extrapolated from the long list of high-end RFAs still unsigned. “Two of the restricted free agents came off the board on the first day (July 1) with Aho and Meier and since then not only the guys that are always talked about but even working way down the list, there hasn’t seemed to be any activity at all. I don’t know what to put that on or what to equate that with, really; other than now that we’re into September and rookie tournaments are going to start this week and the business of hockey will proverbially get back and running, I think everybody hopes to see some activity.
“Because these are all excellent young players,’’ Dubas added. “I don’t think we want to see them missing camp or missing time. Not just our situation but every situation throughout the league.’’
There is so much media attention on the Marner situation with the Leafs, of course, and we’ll delve more into that below. But again, the situation in Toronto is not a unique one. It really is crazy — even if we saw it coming — how many of these stars or stars in the making remain unsigned today.
“It’s been talked about ad nauseam, really the whole year, and here we are,” Flames GM Brad Treliving said on Tuesday morning. “Unique time for sure. But you just keep working away at it. That’s all you do with any of these things, you keep daily picking away and hopefully find some common ground and eventually put it together.’’
I remember talking to Avalanche GM Joe Sakic back in June and while he was hoping to get something done earlier with his star winger, he knew back then it might play out longer and he would have to be patient with Rantanen’s camp. “It seems like a wait and see for a lot of those guys,” Sakic said on Monday, referring to the long list of RFAs. “We’ve had dialogue and that’s going to continue from our standpoint until Mikko signs. We’ll see where this goes. It’s probably the first time so many of these guys are RFAs and are still yet to be signed.’’
As I stated in one my (rare) summer tweets, the difficulty is that while there’s no denying the impact all these young players have — and that the numbers strongly suggest teams should be investing more heavily in their younger core players and be more careful with players over 30 — it’s not easy to overhaul the system overnight.
Sure, it’s becoming evident the mid-level roster player is going to take a hit in future negotiations as the system recalibrates, but in the meantime, a lot of these teams are carrying some of those mid-level contracts that are taking up cap space. Something has to give.
But it’s not just about teams who are tight against the cap like Toronto, Tampa Bay or Winnipeg.
Take Colorado. They’ve got loads of cap room. Now. But in a few years when Nathan MacKinnon is up again, and young Cale Makar is coming off his entry-level deal, that won’t be the case. This is a young, talented team but it’s going to be expensive and require a sound plan to keep all of the pieces together over time.
“Well that’s just it,” Sakic said. “We’re OK right now (with cap room) but in a couple of years, we’re not going to be. We’ve got to do what’s right by our organization. Every team has their own internal structure as to how they do things.’’
The question is, are any of these situations headed for a William Nylander-like mess requiring Dec. 1 deadline drama?
GMs and agents around the league can perhaps take lessons from how that played out last season. Dubas has certainly learned from it.
“We’ve spoken very openly in the past about the situation with William and my own personal regrets and the amount of blame that I feel needs to be shouldered for the way that that went,” said Dubas. “The fact that William missed two and a half months of the season if you want to include camp and just really wasn’t set up to have a good season. This situation I think for all of these players is a little bit different because I would assume, and I know in our case, we’ve been working at it for a while. I took the job over in May 2018. In William’s case, we only had four months before camp to be working on it. These ones here, they’re 10 months past that, I would assume most of the other teams have been working on their situations and their players for the time at least. So I don’t know how similar these situations are to William’s.
“On both sides, the teams and the players’ side, I would really say there’s probably a strong incentive for everybody not to have their player miss time and for the players not to miss time,’’ added Dubas. “I’m hopeful not just for our case but for our every case that that is the outcome. Because I don’t think for the benefit of hockey in general that we need high-end players missing time.’’
Let’s take a specific look at some of these situations:
For what it’s worth, I was talking to an agent recently who has nothing to do with the Marner negotiation, just an outsider opining, but he heard through the grapevine that “Toronto was trying the hardest at trying to get something done with Marner.’’
A comment which I shared with Dubas on Tuesday.
“I don’t know where they would get that from necessarily,” the Leafs GM said. “It’s hard for me to answer that because I don’t know exactly what every other team is doing or what every other team is doing with regards to their efforts to sign their players. I know how we’ve handled it, going back over a year ago in this case. Mitch is a spectacular, young player. He’s a spectacular person. We want to have him here. We don’t want to have him miss any days, period. So that’s the way we’ve handled it and the amount of effort we’ve put into it.’’
Agent Darren Ferris has kept a low profile this offseason throughout the Marner talks and maintained that tact on Tuesday when I reached out.
“I wouldn’t comment on the negotiations just for respect to the process,’’ Ferris said.
Others sources suggest teams have talked to the Marner camp regarding an offer sheet. Frankly, if I were a team interested in Marner, I would try to trade for him instead.
And while Dubas wasn’t going to get into specifics, obviously teams have phoned.
But the Leafs clearly don’t want to trade him. “You know, you talk to every team about different things that come up and different things that are going on,” Dubas said. “Anytime a player doesn’t have a contract or has a suspected stalemate I think if the other GMs are doing their jobs and they’re great at what they do, they’re going to find out what’s going on and whether there’s a fit there.
“But that’s not a real avenue that we’ve even remotely explored,” the Leafs GM added.
“It’s our full intention that Mitch Marner will be a Toronto Maple Leaf for a very long time and that’s everything we’re working towards.’’
One narrative that has taken hold over the past year that I think Dubas would like to squash is this notion that while Marner might have wanted to sign a year ago, that the Leafs weren’t interested because they wanted to get Nylander signed first.
Not the case, Dubas clarified.
“If we would have had the opportunity to sign Mitch or Auston or William early on to a deal that we thought would fit within the framework of what we were doing or they were willing to sign, for us there was no trying to delay it, there was no trying to push it down the road,” Dubas said. “Going through all this, actually the first person once I took the job that I met with regarding any contract at all was Darren (Ferris), at the combine.
“I know that’s been floated out there and said (Leafs not willing to sign Marner a year ago), but from our end of it, we don’t look back and regret anything at all because we’ve just handled the situation as it’s come.’’
So how does this end?
While the Leafs, I think, would much rather have Marner signed long term, I believe the idea of a three-year bridge deal has been broached by both sides. The question is, at what AAV? That’s where the problem still lies. Finding a number that works on a shorter deal.
In this situation, I believe both sides are further away on term rather than dollars.
Which is a theme for many of these current RFA negotiations. Just like Carolina would have wanted Aho for eight years instead of the five years they will get after matching the offer sheet from Montreal, the same is true for many of these negotiations.
“I prefer longer myself,” Sakic said. “With our situation, we want to get Mikko done long term. More than the five years. We prefer long term and hopefully, we can work towards getting that accomplished that here.’’
On the flip side, again staying away from five years where the player walks himself into unrestricted free agency, the other solution is a shorter-term bridge deal which I think has also come up in talks between the Avs and Rantanen’s agent Mike Liut. My sense is that they’ve exchanged offers and counter-offers but nothing close at this point.
This is the one that surprises me the most. I think because of the culture established in Tampa with the contracts that Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy signed, I had that feeling that Point might be the first of the high-end RFAs to ink a deal this summer.
I was wrong.
Both Tampa GM Julien BriseBois and Point’s agent Gerry Johansson declined to comment on how talks were going. My sense, quite frankly, is that there haven’t been that many discussions this summer between the sides. But that certainly should change now with the specter of camp around the corner.
Johansson, I’m told, is meeting with Point on Wednesday in Calgary to further strategize with his client. Point had a hip procedure done after the season but it sounds like he’s right on schedule in his recovery and should be ready for the start of the season.
Again, the issue here is term. I think the Tkachuk camp led by Newport Sports would prefer five years while the Flames want to avoid that. I think there’s been talk of shorter-term scenarios and also longer-term but again like most teams, avoiding five years where the players go straight to UFA is what this is about for the Flames. And I’m not sure a whole lot has changed since the June draft when both sides met.
Therefore, I don’t think it’s any surprise that it’s September and like many other RFAs, Tkachuk remains unsigned.
“I mean you’d certainly want everyone signed but it’s not shocking, no,” Treliving said on Tuesday. “And so, all you do, and it sounds boring and cliche, but you just keep working away at it. So that’s what we plan on doing. These things take time. We haven’t even started training camp yet. I always remain confident and positive that you’ll get it put together. It’s unique here with all the guys (around the NHL) that are there. But that doesn’t necessarily change everyone’s individual approach. You just keep working away at it.’’
As I’ve said before, a bridge deal makes the most sense for me here. Laine, after struggling at times last season, should bet on himself with a couple of big years and come back for a mega-deal in a few seasons. The Jets could use the benefits of a bridge deal to make the cap work right now when their window to win is still open.
Both Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Laine’s agent Liut declined to comment but it appears talks picked up last week. Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Like Point, I thought for whatever reason Boeser would have been done early, especially after Meier signed in San Jose. I think you can draw some comparisons between Meier and Boeser.
But it’s still not done.
“We’ve been negotiating Brock’s contract for over a year now, hopefully we can get a deal done before training camp or the start of the season,” Boeser’s agent Ben Hankinson wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday. “It’s an exciting season ahead for Canucks fans and Brock doesn’t want to miss anything.’’
Canucks GM Jim Benning remains hopeful.
“We’ve been working on this all summer and we’re going to continue to work on it,’’ Benning told me on Tuesday. “I’m hopeful that we can get something done here this next week and a half so he’s here for the start of camp.’’
Meier signed for four years and a $6-million AAV, he’s still an RFA for one more year after his deal, although his final year salary is $10 million which gives him a very nice qualifying offer position.
Again if I had to guess on what is holding up Boeser and the Canucks I would say mostly term. It’s a theme throughout the league in these talks.
Status quo with the RFA Blue Jackets blueliner.
“No update, still confident it will get done before camp, that’s all,’’
Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said on Tuesday. I would have to guess term again is an issue in this one. No way the Jackets would want to let Werenski walk into his UFA status.
Judging from the way Columbus took a hard line in the past with Ryan Johansson and Josh Anderson in RFA negotiations, I can’t see the Jackets giving in here.
These are only a handful of the RFAs that are still without a deal, what a month or two it’s going to be on this front.