For arbitration eligible restricted free agents, particularly those who filed with their sights set on getting a deal done, the next few weeks will help determine what they’ll be earning in the coming campaign.
Already, we’ve seen the threat of arbitration help propel a solution for a few teams and players, with the likes of the Minnesota Wild and Matthew Dumba, the Calgary Flames and Elias Lindholm and the Winnipeg Jets and Connor Hellebuyck coming to terms on deals ahead of their date in front of the arbitrator. For others, such as Hellebuyck’s teammate Jacob Trouba, the hearing went all the way through to a decision, with the defenseman landing himself a one-year, $5.5-million pact by way of the arbitration process. Others, too, could soon follow suit, with Brandon Montour, Joel Edmundson and Jason Zucker among those set to have their hearings this coming week.
But be it by arbitration or simply the concern that comes along with entering into a contentious debate about a player’s value, the signing process for those arbitration-eligible free agents has been sped along thanks to their rights as experienced RFAs. Not all RFAs are in the same boat, however, as several notable young players remain unsigned with no option for arbitration to really get the ball rolling on a new deal. Thus, without any real bargaining power beyond the possibility of a holdout, it could take some time for these arbitration-ineligible RFAs to come to terms on a new contract.
Here are five players in particular who may see their contract situations drag on into the summer:
DYLAN LARKIN, DETROIT RED WINGS
If we were to rate these on a scale of least-to-most likely to go the duration of the summer, with one being the least, Larkin would be about a two at worst. It’s been made clear by Larkin that he could see his time without a deal for the 2018-19 campaign coming to an end shortly, although that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen this week. It could still take several before the entire thing is ironed out.
There’s no reason for these negotiations to become all that contentious, however. It’s clear Larkin and the Red Wings are a fit — some consider him a shoo-in as Detroit’s next captain — and the 21-year-old has proven he’s ready to carry the offensive load. His sophomore season notwithstanding, Larkin has been excellent for the Red Wings and led the team with 63 points last season, though his 16 goals were the fewest of his young career. If his shooting percentage normalizes a bit, however, Larkin looks like a promising 20-goal, 60-point player for the foreseeable future. As for terms on a new deal, you can probably safely bet on Larkin landing something in the $6 million-range annually, and Detroit might be best served to buy up a free agent year with a six-year term.
WILLIAM NYLANDER, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
In an ideal world, the Maple Leafs would go all-in on a long-term deal that pays Nylander, 22, big bucks. The reality is, though, that the best course of action might be for Toronto to find a bridge deal that works for both sides and go from there. Reason being is that while it would be nice to lock up Nylander to an eight-year deal worth, say, $7-million per season, the Maple Leafs have to keep an eye on what contracts for pending RFAs Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will cost the organization next summer, not to mention the potential price of retaining the services of Jake Gardiner or acquiring another top-tier defender. Cap space is somewhat limited, too, with Toronto currently projected to have about $31.5 million in spending room next summer, according to CapFriendly, and that’s without accounting for inking other upcoming RFAs.
So, why might it drag out? Well, Nylander’s bridge deal is going to be somewhat tricky to pin down. He’s been phenomenal in his first two seasons, scoring 42 goals and 122 points in 163 games. Other players to post similar numbers across their second and third campaigns in recent years include Jack Eichel, Leon Draisaitl and Mikko Rantanen. You need look only at Nikita Kucherov’s prior three-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning, one that was signed days before the 2016-17 season began, to see how long it can take to hammer out a bridge deal with top talents.
SHEA THEODORE, VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Theodore’s presence comes with an asterisk of sorts. Maybe it won’t take all that long for the two sides to determine his value, but there’s a fair chance it’s going to have to wait until after William Karlsson’s arbitration hearing for any deal between Vegas and Theodore, 22, to get finalized. With Karlsson set to earn himself quite the raise — that’s what happens when you nearly win the Rocket Richard Trophy and score at a point per game rate as a pending RFA with arbitration rights — the Golden Knights are probably going to want to get a better outlook on their future cap situation before ironing out the details with Theodore.
That said, he seems ripe for the kind of long-term, mid-range deal that other high-scoring, minute-munching blueliners have earned in recent years. Players with the same experience level who have produced at a somewhat similar rate over the past decade include Kris Letang, Alex Edler and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. If that’s the calibre of defenseman Theodore is going to continue to prove himself to be, the best bet for Vegas would be to get him locked up now before he ends up costing an even prettier penny later.
SAM REINHART, BUFFALO SABRES
There was a point in mid-December or so where all the chatter surrounding Reinhart was about what the Sabres could receive if they were to move the 22-year-old. A second-overall pick in 2014, some found Reinhart’s development to be one of the great disappointment’s in Buffalo. He hadn’t become the top-line talent it was believed he could be, so the conversation was about cutting bait and hoping any return could help bolster a roster that was now centred on budding superstar Eichel.
Then came the second half of the season. Based solely on offensive totals, Reinhart was remarkable from January onward. After scoring a paltry five goals and 11 points in 38 games, he took off with 20 goals and 39 points in his final 44 contests of the season. He led the Sabres in scoring from Jan. 1 to the end of the campaign, too. In fact, only 34 players put up more points across that span.
That does complicate the contract question, however. With Reinhart proving he can score like a first-line talent, will he want to command top dollar? And if so, will the Sabres be willing to bet his past 44 games were the beginning of his massive breakout? Buffalo has more than enough cap space to make any type of deal work, be it a bridge contract or long-term pact, but finding the right value and proper term given the small sample of top-tier play from Reinhart might make it a tough negotiation.
NOAH HANIFIN, CALGARY FLAMES
Hanifin’s next contract is an interesting one. The fifth-overall selection in 2015 was fast-tracked to the NHL by the Carolina Hurricanes and slowly grew into a middle-pairing role with the organization over the past few seasons, capped off last season with a career-best 10-goal, 32-point season. Dealt at the draft to the Flames, though, Hanifin could be in line for more than a bridge deal. Matter of fact, he has a fairly close comparable that could give Calgary a nice baseline for the pact.
Across his first three seasons, Hanifin has scored 18 goals, 83 points and averaged 18:14 in ice time across 239 games, which puts him almost exactly in line with Columbus Blue Jackets blueliner Seth Jones, who scored 17 goals, 83 points and averaged 20:32 across his first 240 games. Jones went on to sign a six-year, $32.4-million deal, which carries a $5.4 million cap hit, coming out of his entry-level deal. Based on cap percentages, though, a similar deal for Hanifin would see him paid roughly $5.9 million per season given the current spending limit.
The tricky thing for the Flames is figuring out whether nearly $6 million annually makes sense for Hanifin given he’s not yet shown himself to be as defensively capable as Jones was at the same age, not to mention that it would eat much of this season’s remaining cap space and take a significant bite out of the $17.7 million that’s projected to be available to Calgary next summer, per CapFriendly. Goaltender Mike Smith will need a new deal next summer, as will RFAs Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett and Curtis Lazar.
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