With the opening of all 31 training camps and the first on-ice sessions set for the next day or two, the clock has officially begun ticking on the most lengthy and unique group of restricted free agents the NHL has ever seen. Every day missed by these young and talented players is one more day they’ll fall behind their teammates in preparing for the season. And if you don’t think it’s important for these guys to be on the ice on time, you haven’t been following the history of players who have gone down this road before.
There are no easy answers here, otherwise there would not be 11 teams in this position right now. All told, more than a third of the teams in the league – representing a total of 16 players – faces the prospect of going into camp with at least one roster player coming off an entry-level deal who does not yet have a contract. Three of them (Mitch Marner, Brayden Point and Mikko Rantanen) finished among the top 20 scorers in the NHL last season and a number of the others are significant players on their rosters.
And one thing is very clear. These players are not content to shut up and play. They do not accept the long-held principle that young players are required to pay their dues and accept terms and money not to their satisfaction, with the reward being that they’ll make the really big money later in their careers when their impact will be less significant. That’s because it makes no sense and it’s taken these players to expose how backward that kind of thinking is.
Let’s take a look at the Philadelphia Flyers, for example. Even though Kevin Hayes told his agent after he met with the Flyers in the spring he wanted to make it work in Philadelphia, that did not stop them from giving a 27-year-old player who has never scored 50 points and been a third-line center for most of his career a seven-year deal worth $7 million a year. Travis Konecny, meanwhile, is five years younger, has two 20-goal seasons to his credit and has already played three NHL seasons at the age of 22. At the same age, Hayes hadn’t even played an NHL game. In Provorov, the Flyers have a defenseman who, despite taking a step back in his development, has the potential to be their No. 1 defenseman.
There might have been a time when conventional thinking was relevant, but really, what exactly do players such as Marner, Point, Rantanen, Matthew Tkachuk, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor have left to prove to their employers at this point? Marner led the Leafs in scoring. Point has supplanted Steven Stamkos as the No. 1 center on one of the best teams in the NHL. Rantanen is a point-per-game player, Tkachuk is the Flames’ future captain, Laine is one of the league’s most dynamic scorers and Connor is an elite offensive player in the making.
In reality, teams are simply using the tools that are available in the collective bargaining agreement. As John Davidson passionately claimed a couple of years ago when dealing with Ryan Johansen, if teams can’t use their leverage at this point, when are they going to be able to do it? He has a point, but so do these young stars. They’ve already played three years in a system where the financial system discriminated against them in the form of the entry-level salary cap. Why should they have to continue to wait for a couple more years until they have arbitration rights to get what they want? In their minds, they’ve already waited long enough.
Much has been made of the fact that players are coming into the NHL at younger ages and having bigger impacts than ever before. We all seem to want to celebrate that because it’s great for the game, but not reward it. It doesn’t make any sense. It makes almost no sense that the NHL refuses to give arbitration rights to players coming out of entry-level contracts. Not sure where that comes from. They’re giving the players 50 percent of the revenues. Why not leave it up to them how to distribute it?
These players who are coming into the league and doing all these special things are not content to have to wait five years before they have any say over the terms of their contracts, particularly when they’re in the most productive times of their careers. They’ve been told through their junior and college careers to wait, that the sacrifices will be worth it and the big money will come. They’ve been told the same thing through the first three years of their NHL careers. That’s long enough. It’s a new reality now and this issue is not going away.
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