With NHL training camps underway and the big trades we were all waiting for (Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty) completed the next big thing to watch around the league are the remaining unsigned restricted free agents.
There are seven of them around the league and they all find themselves in a similar situation: They are either 22 or 23 years old, they are coming off of their entry-level contracts, and none of them had any arbitration rights this offseason. As much as everyone around the league hates the arbitration process, there is no denying that it gets things done (either before arbitration or during it), something Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee recently pointed out as he deals with one of the ongoing RFA situations with defenseman Shea Theodore.
“People get pressured into getting a deal done or you go to arbitration,” McPhee said at the start of training camp this past week, via NHL.com. “There’s a group of 10-15 good young players in the League that don’t have arbitration rights and don’t have contracts right now. And it just seems to take a while to work them out.”
A lot of times the big issue at play is the team preferring to sign the player to a shorter-term bridge contract, while the player tends to want the security that comes with a long-term contract.
Let us go around the league and take a quick look at the seven teams and players that still need to reach a deal.
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs — Nylander is the big one still out there because he’s a front-line player and, well, he plays for Toronto and that immediately makes him a big story. He’s already missed the first days of training camp and there are reports that the two sides are still far apart on a deal as Nylander doesn’t want to sign a bridge deal. And quite honestly, neither should Toronto. At this point we have a pretty good idea of the type of player that Nylander is (a really good one) and he is just now entering his peak years. Signing him to a two-year contract now and then signing him to a long-term contract after that after he’s continued to develop into his prime years is probably going to end up costing Toronto more money than if it just signed him to a long-term deal now that is comparable to, say, the one David Pastrnak signed in Boston before the 2017-18 season.
The concern that everyone will have here for Toronto is making this all work under the salary cap. The team spent big money on John Tavares in free agency this summer and after this season will have to sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to new contracts. They will not be cheap.
Some might argue that Toronto will have to trade one of the young guys (either Nylander or Marner, with Nylander usually the one being suggested) but the Maple Leafs can make this work with all of them.
Keep your young, impact talent.
Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights — Theodore’s absence and lack of a contract is a pretty big deal for Vegas right now.
Not only was he one of the Golden Knights’ top defenseman a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes a night and finishing with 26 points from the blue line, but with Nate Schmidt set to miss the first 20 games of the season due to a suspension the team is already going to be shorthanded on the blue line.
As recently as Friday afternoon the word here (via TSN’s Pierre LeBrun) is that the two sides were far apart.
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers — Like the situation in Vegas with Theodore, the Oilers really need Nurse on the ice because an already undermanned unit became even thinner when the Oilers lost Andrej Sekera to injury. On Friday Nurse’s agent told the Edmonton Journal the two sides have a disagreement on what Nurse’s value is currently is, resulting in the 23-year-old defenseman returning to Toronto to continue to train.
Via the Journal:
“We have a disagreement on what Darnell’s value is and at this time there’s no meeting of the minds,” said Nurse’s agent Anton Thun, who feels there’s no reason for Nurse to stay in Edmonton now.
“He’s not under contract with the Oilers. He’s gone back to train where he did all summer, training in the same rink and gym. He can skate with a university or junior team. He won’t be skating by himself,” said Thun, who doesn’t feel Nurse, because of his age (24) is losing that much by not being in camp right now.
“If he didn’t know who his defence partners were or didn’t know the team, it would be important to be on the ice learning the ropes but this is his fourth year in the organization.”
Nurse appeared in all 82 games for the Oilers a year ago and set new career-highs across the board and played more minutes than anyone on the team. (UPDATE: Nurse has signed a two-year deal.)
Sam Reinhart, Buffalo Sabres — Reinhart, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft, may never be a superstar but his production through the first three years of his career has been remarkably consistent, and he should still be viewed as one of the team’s core players along with Jack Eichel and top pick Rasmus Dahlin.
He set new career-highs a year ago with 25 goals (tied for the team lead) and 50 points for the Sabres.
Still, there is a bit of a mystery as to what he can still be. At 22 he is still fairly young and probably has not entered his prime years yet, but after three consecutive years of 20-25 goals and 45-50 points, how much more untapped potential is there with him?
We can try to figure that out a little bit.
Since the start of the 2005-06 season there have been 31 forwards — including Reinhart — that have played at least 149 games through their age 22 season and averaged between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game (here is the list of players via Hockey-Reference).
Overall, it is a fairly strong list with some really good players.
The three best players that went on to become All-Star level players are Corey Perry, Zach Parise and Jakub Voracek, while there very few players that regressed or failed to go on to have productive careers (Steve Bernier, Peter Mueller, and Ryan Strome might fit that category). So there is a chance he could still really break out, but most likely this is probably close to what you should expect from him going forward. If you have a forward that can consistently get you 25 goals and 50 points you have yourself a pretty good top-six forward. Not a superstar by any means, but a player you can certainly win with.
Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils — Wood was one of the many young players the Devils relied on last season as they made their return to the playoffs. His 19 goals were fourth-most on the team (behind only Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier) and he did that while playing just 12 minutes per game over 76 games. On a per-minute basis he was one of the Devils’ most productive goal scorers and it wasn’t really the result of an unsustainably high shooting percentage. He was legitimately good.
General manager Ray Shero said at the start of camp that the two sides are pretty close, but that there are “some philosophical issues that need to be worked out about how the system works.”
Added Shero, via NJ.com, “That’s not just a situation with his agents or Miles himself.”
So chalk another one up under the system isn’t perfect category.
Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets — This isn’t the first time the Jets have had an RFA contract dispute with a young defenseman, going through this pretty regularly over the past few years with Jacob Trouba. That situation has reached a point where it remains unlikely that Trouba remains in Winnipeg long-term. They really do not want that storyline to repeat itself here. Morrissey isn’t quite as good as Trouba, but he is still a former first-round draft pick that has developed nicely and was one of the team’s top-four defenders a year ago, playing more than 20 minutes per night. (UPDATE: Morrissey is now signed.)
Nick Ritchie, Anaheim Ducks — Of all the remaining unsigned RFA’s Ritchie is the one that probably has the least amount of leverage because his career to this point has been, for lack of a better word, uninspiring. The No. 10 overall pick in 2014, Ritchie has appeared in 186 games in his NHL career and recorded just 26 goals and 33 assists (59 total points), including only 10 goals in 76 games a year ago. He is not quite a bust, but he also has not really taken a significant step forward (he actually scored four fewer goals this past season than he did the year before. If there is any player out of this group that should be destined for a “prove it” bridge type of contract, Ritchie is almost certainly the one.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.