UFA Tracker

Rumor Roundup: Early deals set contract precedent for next summer’s free agents

Tomas Plekance’s deal in Montreal set the bar for the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen, while the players like David Backes and Andrew Ladd will look for contracts similar to what Ryan Kesler got.

While the start of the 2016 NHL unrestricted free agency period is months away, speculation continues to percolate about several notable players who could be available. Much of the focus, of course, is on superstars like Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar, but there are others who could become hot commodities next July.

Citing the two-year, $12 million contract Tomas Plekanec recently signed with the Montreal Canadiens, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wonders how it could affect negotiations between the New York Islanders and center Frans Nielsen. The 31-year-old is in the final season of a four-year, $11-million deal, with an average cap hit of $2.75 million. While Friedman notes Plekanec has better offensive numbers than Nielsen, Isles coach Jack Capuano thinks highly of him.

Much will depend upon Nielsen’s asking price. While his defensive game is comparable to Plekanec’s, he won’t get a similar annual cap hit ($6 million) from the Islanders or anyone else next summer. Given his age and historically low offense, the Isles could offer up a two- or three-year deal worth around $4.25-million annually.

Friedman also wonders what impact Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler’s six-year, $41.25-million deal will have upon St. Louis Blues captain David Backes and Winnipeg Jets captain Andrew Ladd. He notes they’re around the same age (Kesler and Backes turn 32 next year, while Ladd turns 30). Noting Backes and Ladd outscore Kesler on a points-per-game basis, Friedman believes the Blues and Jets could resist signing them to comparable deals.

Backes ($4.5 million) and Ladd ($4.4 million) currently have roughly the same annual cap hit. Both could be among the biggest stars available when the UFA market opens on July 1.

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Salary cap space will be a significant factor for the Blues, who currently have over $52 million invested in their 2016-17 cap payroll. They must re-sign restricted free agent winger Jaden Schwartz, as well as re-sign or replace UFAs like Troy Brouwer and Carl Gunnarsson. Assuming another modest increase in the cap ceiling, they could balk at ponying up over $6-million annually for Backes.

The Blues’ performance this season could also play a key role in Backes’ future with the club. They’ve been considered playoff underachievers in recent years, leaving St. Louis fans and pundits restless. If they come up short again, big changes could be in store. Among them could include letting Backes depart via free agency.

Cap space could also be an issue for the Jets. While they have over $43 million committed to 2016-17, they’ve traditionally been a budget team, spending well below the league maximum. $6-million annually for Ladd could be out of their price range, especially when up-and-coming stars like Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba are restricted free agents next summer.

Ladd isn’t the only notable UFA on the Jets roster. Hulking defenseman Dustin Byfuglien ($5.2-million cap hit) will also seek a substantial raise. If the Jets are willing to spend big to retain a key free agent, it could come down to a choice between the two.

Rumor Roundup appears regularly 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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