With the official start of the NHL season just one week away, six pretty important players around the league remain unsigned. It’s not uncommon for one or two restricted free agents to be hammering out a deal right up to the last minute, but it’s a little strange to see half a dozen out there. Especially when the RFAs in question hold such value to their clubs.
Of course, these are complicated negotiations to begin with. In theory, the team has all the leverage here. There’s sort of an unwritten rule among GMs around the league that you don’t offer-sheet someone else’s prized free agent, because you likely won’t get them anyway if the original club matches. And they almost always do match, meaning all you really did was drive up the price — and likely anger a potential trade partner for the foreseeable future in the process.
That’s why these guys are “restricted”. On the other hand, if the organization completely insults the player with an offer, or the contract talks simply turn sour, that essentially sets the stage for that player to leave the second he becomes unrestricted down the line. And it can even make for an awkward two years while he plays out a deal he’s unhappy with.
So there are reasons why a process like this can drag out. But it’s still a little crazy to see the following names unsigned in early October…
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
Well, this is the headliner — and for good reason. Gaudreau was dominant for Boston College, and hasn’t missed a step at the NHL level. Over his first two full seasons with the Flames, he has 54 goals and 142 points. Players like this don’t come around often.
Problem for Calgary is that he wants to be paid like a truly elite player. Again, he doesn’t have a ton of leverage here. On the one hand, Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are the two centerpieces that this franchise is being built around — and everybody knows it. On the other, the rumors that he’s asking for $8-$8.5 million per year are pretty aggressive. To put that in perspective, Sidney Crosby’s cap hit is $8.7 million per season. And he has as many Stanley Cups as Gaudreau has years in the league.
Still, the Flames know they need him. And there’s a growing buzz that the two sides are confident they can get a deal done before opening night. Stay tuned.
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
While Gaudreau is the top story, Kucherov’s situation is the one that could actually have the bigger impact on the league as a whole. That’s because the Lightning have a legitimate shot of going all the way this season. But they’ll likely need Kucherov in place to make it happen.
As we noted last week, the 23-year-old Russian has been the model of consistency so far in his NHL career. And he’s already garnered plenty of high-pressure playoff experience — rising to the occasion multiple times. For awhile there, it seemed like both sides were fairly confident a deal would get done in time. But he still hasn’t reported, Tampa has less than $6 million in cap space available at the moment, and contingency plans like Brayden Point are being kept around camp, just in case.
Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets
The Jets are that rare team that somehow has too many right-handed defensemen, which is basically the NHL equivalent of finding a wild herd of unicorns in your backyard.
This certainly seems to be the most contentious situation of the six. Trouba holds a ton of value, but his agent claims there really hasn’t been much in the way of negotiations lately. And then he requested a trade for his client. So now, just as Trouba doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage in terms of holding out for more money, Winnipeg has a little less leverage around the league in terms of dealing him.
That said, the Jets could still expect a pretty lofty return if they actually do part ways with the skilled puck-mover. But that return likely needs to include an NHL-ready blueliner and prospects.
Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks
Rakell entered last season with nine career goals in 93 career NHL games — and then erupted for 20 in 72. That was good enough for third on the team, and his 48 total points placed him fourth overall in Anaheim.
The Ducks are obviously a talented bunch, but a closer look at their forwards reveals a lack of scoring depth behind Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Perry led the way with an impressive 34 goals, but only three other Anaheim players cracked the 20-goal barrier — and none had more than 21. What’s more, only six guys on the roster even reached double digit goals. That suddenly makes Rakell a lot more valuable than he was 12 months ago.
Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks
That’s two Ducks on this list, and that’s not good. On top of being one of the key building blocks on the back end, Lindholm was actually one of those six Anaheim players to break the double digit goal barrier. He’s someone they really need locked up as soon as possible.
The term of a potential deal doesn’t seem to be the issue here, so it comes down to dollars. And while Lindholm’s camp sees his value in at least the $6-$6.5 million range, the Ducks seem more comfortable in the neighborhood of $5-5.5 million.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres are quickly becoming one of the more intriguing clubs in the East, thanks to their impressive collection of talented young forwards. But those forwards are a lot more valuable when they have a defenseman that can get them the puck. And that’s where Ristolainen comes in.
Much like Lindholm in Orange County, the 21-year-old Ristolainen is clearly someone Buffalo would like to build around on the back end for many years to come. In fact, he might be even more essential to the Sabres, because they don’t currently have any other potential anchors on the blue line.
The two sides don’t seem all that close to an agreement at the moment, but negotiations tend to speed up when the season gets close. And Ristolainen is at least in Buffalo, so a deal might not be that far off.