The Buffalo Sabres were in a difficult position with unsigned restricted free agent Sam Reinhart this summer.
On one hand, the 2017-18 NHL season began with Reinhart inching his way closer to the chopping block, his modest performance lending to speculation that he could be on his way out of town before he became the fixture of the offense he was drafted to be. On the other, though, Reinhart’s final 41 games of the campaign borderied on brilliant. His 18 goals and 37 points vaulted him to a career-best 25-goal, 50-point season. He was one of the best offensive pieces at the Sabres’ disposal from Game 41 through to the end of the campaign.
So, with Reinhart penning a tale of two seasons in Buffalo with the need for a new deal on the horizon, the Sabres had the task of figuring how to pay the 22-year-old without betting too big on what could have been a flash in the pan. On Wednesday, Buffalo managed to do just that on what can best be described as the perfect "show me" contract for both sides: a two-year pact that carries a $3.65-million cap hit.
For the Sabres, the bridge deal ensures two things. First, that Reinhart will be back in the lineup this season with the opportunity to prove that the expectation placed upon him as the second overall pick in the 2014 draft wasn’t misguided. Second, it allows the Sabres to have some added cap flexibility over the next two seasons without putting too much stock in what could have — but hopefully wasn’t — a case of Reinhart capturing lightning in a bottle to end the 2017-18 campaign.
As it pertains to Reinhart, though, the bridge contract gives him every opportunity to prove that he was and is every bit the player he portrayed himself as over the back half of last season. To be sure, Reinhart was excellent, too. In fact, on offense alone, he was among the best in the league. From Jan. 7 onward, a span of 41 games for the Sabres, Reinhart was not only the top scorer in the Buffalo lineup, besting the likes of Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, he was the 32nd-highest scorer in the entire NHL. He amassed more points over that span than players such as Patrick Kane, Sean Couturier and Patrik Laine. He scored more goals than all but 17 players.
The offensive opportunities should only grow for Reinhart this coming campaign, too. On what should be an improved attack, where he should have the opportunity to slot in alongside either Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt, Reinhart could realistically produce his best season yet. Moving out of the middle of the ice and becoming a permanent winger seems to have been a revelation for Reinhart, and given the added center depth in Buffalo, there’s plenty of room for growth as a top-line winger. In two years’ time, if he continues along this curve, that could mean Reinhart turns this "show me" deal into his "show me the money" contract.
With Reinhart’s signing, though, there still remains four RFAs without deals for the coming campaign. Here’s the latest:
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
We’ll make this brief, if only because we dove into the subject of Nylander’s contract yesterday. The two sides still appear to be an impasse with neither willing to budge on a new deal. The buzz has been that Nylander, 22, and Toronto’s front office envision a long-term pact, but agreeing to terms on such a deal is made difficult due to future cap concerns. With Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner due new pacts come next summer, the Maple Leafs need to navigate these waters carefully. Nylander’s contract could play a major role in setting the parameters for Toronto’s negotiations with Matthews and Marner. That’s particularly true when it comes to the latter, particularly if Marner goes out and outproduces Nylander this season.
Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights
On base statistics, Theodore’s season looks somewhat similar to that of two other young defensemen who recently re-signed with their respective teams in Winnipeg's Josh Morrissey and Edmonton's Darnell Nurse. While Morrissey and Nurse posted twin 26-point campaigns in 2017-18, Theodore finished third among Vegas blueliners with a six-goal, 29-point output. The difference? Theodore managed his near-30-point campaign in a mere 61 games. His per-game scoring rate was tied for 37th among NHL defensemen, alongside the likes of Zach Werenski, Cam Fowler and Aaron Ekblad. Only Colin Miller had a higher points per game among Vegas blueliners, and even that was marginal – 0.50 to 0.48 in favor of Miller. Extrapolate that performance, plus Theodore’s half-point-per-game scoring in the playoffs, across a full season, and the expectation would be that Vegas has a 23-year-old, 40-point defenseman on their hands. Plus, at his age, there’s serious potential for him to see those numbers rise.
That’s likely the reason the Golden Knights and Theodore aren’t close to a new deal, according to Sportsnet’s John Shannon. It wouldn’t be hard to fathom Theodore seeking something in the range of a Colton Parayko-esque contract. The Blues signed the defenseman to a five-year deal that carries a $5.5-million cap hit when he was coming off of his entry-level deal. Theodore has a more offense-minded game than Parayko, but otherwise, it’s not too difficult to draw the comparison.
Nick Ritchie, Anaheim Ducks
Ritchie, 22, was the Ducks’ first pick, 10th overall, in the 2014 draft, and there were high hopes for him. The belief was he could be a beastly power forward who learned from the likes of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on his way to becoming a future first-liner. Three seasons into his pro career, though, and we’ve seen very little in the way of first-line performance out of Ritchie. In fact, at a time when he was expected to piece together the best performance of his career, Ritchie instead took a minor step backwards. He scored just 10 goals and 27 points in 76 games last season while averaging 13:11 per game. The season prior, he had scored 14 goals and 28 points across 77 games with slightly less ice time.
So, where are the two sides at in contract negotiations? This from Elliott Teaford of the Orange County Register: “There have been talks between the two sides, but a signing is not imminent and Murray was unsure when a deal might be completed.” It seems unlikely that Ritchie is going to get anything longer than one or two years on his next pact. The Ducks are going to want to see more than they have out of Ritchie before committing long-term.
Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils
Ahead of training camp, it appeared the Devils and Wood were well on their way to coming to terms on a new pact. Unfortunately, camp is underway, New Jersey has already had a pair of split-squad games and a third per-season tilt is about to happen Wednesday night without Wood putting pen to paper on a contract.
Like Reinhart, the terms of Wood’s deal are somewhat difficult to nail down. He was an unexpected success story last season, notching 19 goals and 32 points in his sophomore NHL campaign. More impressive yet, the 2013 fourth-round pick did so skating primarily fourth-line minutes. He averaged 12:28 per game across 76 games in 2017-18. A bridge deal would undoubtedly be the play for the Devils, but New Jersey hasn’t handed the 23-year-old anything he’s willing to sign quite yet.
That said, it doesn’t seem as though there’s a chasm between player and team in negotiations. Ray Shero said as much, according to NJ.com’s Chris Ryan, and Wood’s agent, Peter Fish, echoed that sentiment.