There is undoubtedly a large portion of hockey fandom out there that is taking untold amounts of glee in the fact that the evil empire from The Center of the Hockey Universe™ is embroiled in an untenable stalemate with William Nylander, one that will mercifully come to a conclusion one way or another by 5 p.m. tomorrow.
Go ahead and laugh. Or mock. Or do a little jig at the misfortune being endured by the Toronto Maple Leafs. But there is a bit of fair warning in their misery. And that is that the day is coming, and it might not be long, where your team suffers the same fate.
You see, the problem here is that the Nylander situation, and others that will come after it, are an unintended consequence of the NHL’s obsession with cost certainty and keeping young players repressed, which is also intersecting with the fact that these same young players are some of the best players on the planet. They come out of their entry-level deals as some of the best players in the league and the only leverage they have is to withhold their services.
That’s what Nylander is doing right now. But just consider that after this season, the following players could be in precisely the same situation Nylander is in right now: Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk, Brock Boeser, Brayden Point, Sebastian Aho, Charlie McAvoy, Kasperi Kapanen, Timo Meier, Kyle Connor, Nick Schmaltz, Zach Werenski, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Adrian Kempe and Jakub Vrana.
All will be coming off their first contracts with no arbitration rights. Why the NHL does not allow these players to go to arbitration, or have their teams take them to arbitration, simply boggles the mind. This process would not only ensure that teams reached at least a short-term agreement with their young stars, but also provides the best environment for a deal that is fair to both sides.
But these young players are looking around and seeing that they’re, in many cases, the best players on their teams. Let’s take Point, for example. He has 18 goals, which is eight more than Nikita Kucherov has scored for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It simply cannot be denied that right here, right now, Point is contributing much more to the success of the Lightning than Steven Stamkos. Much more. Stamkos has a salary cap hit of $8.5 million and Kucherov will be paid an average of $9.5 million when his extension kicks in next season. Is Point not worth at least that much on a long-term deal?
You could certainly argue that Stamkos took a hometown discount on this contract and Kucherov waited his turn by taking a bridge deal that vastly underpaid him until he hit the jackpot. And you’d be 100 percent correct. But what if Point has no interest in doing either? You could also make the argument that at $12.5 million a season, there is not a player who is getting ripped off more than Connor McDavid. But he entered into that deal knowing he could have commanded $15 million a season. But he took less so that the Oilers could have the cap room to build around him. What if Auston Matthews isn’t thinking the same way? It was disingenuous at best when Brendan Shanahan publicly hinted that Nylander (and perhaps Marner and Matthews) would have to take hometown discounts to keep the band together, but Matthews doesn’t have to listen. And that’s why he may become the first $16 million-a-year player in NHL history. Because he can.
The potential influx of Group II free agents undoubtedly has a lot of GMs fretting. The league, on the other hand, probably doesn’t really care, because the allocation of money is not a concern as long as the profits are split 50-50. But what hockey people have done is create an environment where players get paid for what they have already done, not what they’re going to accomplish. The next hobbyhorse for GMs will undoubtedly be an attempt to suppress the salaries and contracts of young players coming into the league even further, perhaps by extending the period of entry-level deals. And they may very well be successful because those players have no say in the collective bargaining agreement under which they will play.
Until the NHL changes that mindset and as long as phenomenal young talents keep coming into the league, this problem is going to persist. Here’s one school of thought. Take your young stars, burn their entry-level deals as quickly as possible, then spend your money signing them to eight-year deals for huge money that will take them to their late 20s. Then talk to them about bridge deals, not your young stars that are already very good and getting better.
That’s not happening now and that’s why William Nylander and the Leafs are staring down an ominous deadline. It’s also why it will almost certainly happen with more regularity in the future.