A month before NHL training camps open, a number of notable restricted free agents are still unsigned.
Among them are Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues, Derek Stepan of the NY Rangers, Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils, Cody Hodgson of the Buffalo Sabres, Jared Cowen of the Ottawa Senators, Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals, and Mikkel Boedker of the Phoenix Coyotes.
These players are coming off entry-level contracts and since they lack arbitration rights, they have almost no leverage in negotiations.
As a result, in recent years there's been an increase in “bridge contracts”; affordable, short-term deals designed to “bridge the gap” between the end of an entry-level contract to within a year or two of the player's eligibility for unrestricted free agency.
Such contracts help teams avoid investing too much too soon in potential (especially if those promising players develop more slowly than expected) and allow cap space for established talent.
Once those bridge contracts expire, however, those players could become significantly more expensive to re-sign, especially if they blossom into superstars.
Pietrangelo, considered the best of this summer's remaining unsigned RFAs, is reportedly seeking a long-term deal worth $7 million per season, while the Blues prefer a short-term contract for less than $6 million per.
Should the Blues get their way, the cost of re-signing Pietrangelo next time could be far more expensive than his current asking price.
The steadily improving Stepan, who was the Rangers leading scorer last season, is in line for a significant raise over the $875,000 he earned last season.
While cap space is an issue for the Rangers, GM Glen Sather has used bridge contracts in the past – last September he re-signed Michael Del Zotto to a two-year, $5.1-million deal.
But he also re-signed defenseman Ryan McDonagh this summer to a six-year, $28.2-million contract, so he'll be treading a fine line trying to convince Stepan to accept a bridge deal.
Cap space is also an issue for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who in addition to Kadri also have defenseman Cody Franson to re-sign.
Franson, 26, is coming off a one-year, $1.2-million contract and is also eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. He could seek a multi-year deal worth north of $3 million, which has sparked speculation he may be traded before the start of the season.
Kadri, however, hasn't been mentioned in trade rumors, mainly because he's a bridge contract candidate.
Meanwhile, with more than $11 million in cap space, the Ottawa Senators have plenty of room to re-sign Cowen, but he's reportedly seeking a deal similar to NY Islanders blueliner Travis Hamonic (seven years at $3.85 million per season). The Senators “want to make sure he fits into their salary structure.” In other words: a bridge contract.
The Devils, Sabres, Capitals and Coyotes also have sufficient cap space to re-sign their remaining restricted free agent stars, but it's obvious they want them inked to affordable, short-term deals.
These players could wait for an offer sheet from a rival club, but those have been rare in recent years and are almost always matched.
The only card those players have to play is the threat of a contract holdout. Since the implementation of the salary cap, however, players rarely employ this tactic – and if they do, it’s not often for long.
Last season, for example, Montreal's P.K. Subban missed the opening two weeks of the shortened season before agreeing to a two-year, $5.75-million deal with the Canadiens.
An exception was Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly, whose holdout stretched over half of last season, ending only when he signed a two-year offer sheet with the Calgary Flames, which the Avalanche quickly matched.
O'Reilly's lengthy holdout was an exception and doesn't appear to signal the start of a trend, especially with the decline of the salary cap for the upcoming season.
A player could also stage a holdout in hopes of forcing a trade, but in today's salary cap world, such moves are scarcer than hen's teeth.
The last example of this tactic was Kyle Turris, who was dealt by the Phoenix Coyotes to the Ottawa Senators in December of 2011, but only after he re-signed a two-year deal with the Coyotes.
Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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