As of Wednesday evening there were still two restricted free agents sitting at home away from their teams in need of a new contract.
In Anaheim, the Ducks have yet to come to terms on a new deal with forward Nick Ritchie, while the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the same position with star forward William Nylander.
With all due respect to Ritchie, who is a decent enough young player with a solid future in the league, Nylander is the player that everyone is watching. Not only because he is the superior talent, but because he is one of the game’s brightest young stars that also happens to be a cornerstone piece for a team that is supposed to be one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup. That team is also based in Toronto.
The issue between the two sides seems to be the same one that always exists between team and player when these situations (a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights) arise: Bridge deal vs. Long-term deal, and the team’s willingness to invest in a young player.
Toronto is in a complicated position right now because it enters the season with more than $12 million in salary cap space — even after signing John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract over the summer — and is going to have to pay all of its young core players significant raises over the next year.
Nylander is a restricted free agent this season, while Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will find themselves in the exact same position after the season.
None of them will be cheap, and all of that extra salary cap space will quickly start to disappear.
On Wednesday, just hours before the start of their season opening game against the Montreal Canadiens, team president Brendan Shanahan talked about the program the Maple Leafs have going on right now and how he hopes their core players might be willing to take somewhat of a hometown discount to stay in Toronto.
He referenced his experiences from his playing days in Detroit where the team was able to build an annual powerhouse around the same core of players.
“I can speak from personal experience, that when I get together with some of my old mates from the Cup years in Detroit we talk about winning together and growing together and that’s what we remember looking back,” said Shanahan on Wednesday.
He continued: “At the end of the day we all found a way to fit with each other so we could keep adding to the group. That’s obviously what we are asking some of our young leaders to do. There is a lot of other voices, and understandably so … it’s not for everyone, we’re not for everyone, but we think the players we currently have, while it’s not going to be easy, we have great confidence that they have bought into being a part of this program, and being a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and representing Toronto in a way that they understand what is going to be most important. What I hope they can look back on 20 years, 30 years down the road and is going to be most important to them, is whether or not they maxed out as an individual and as a team and have championships to look back on and remember fondly.”
He also made reference to Tavares turning down less money from other teams (San Jose reportedly offered more money than the $11 million per year Toronto offered) and how, “he is still doing very, very well financially,” and that “it wasn’t his responsibility to set a new bar or please other people with other interests. He’s a hockey player. He wanted to come here and win hockey games.”
The message there seems to be very clear to Nylander, Matthews, and Marner: Take less money for the betterment of the team so the team can win.
Obviously, this is the approach one might expect from management in professional sports. They are aways going to try and get their players for a cheaper price, especially in a salary capped league where they only have a set amount of money to spend when building the roster.
Still, there are some issues here, especially with Shanahan’s memories about his playing days in Detroit. While it may be true that he and his teammates played for less money than some other stars around the league, the Red Wings were routinely one of the highest salaried teams in the league. It was also a non-capped era so it really didn’t matter what they made to anyone except for the people signing the checks. They could have — and probably should have — gotten even more.
Also: Tavares is from Toronto which gave the Maple Leafs a unique advantage when it came to luring him there for less than what he could have had elsewhere. That is not always going to work in free agency.
But even when taking into account the difference in era, why does the onus fall on the star players to take less money in this situation to help the team? Players in all professional sports have an extremely short window for maximum earning potential, and you should not blame them for wanting to take advantage of that and cash in when they can.
There is also this point from TSN analyst and former NHL player Ray Ferraro that should not be overlooked:
It reminds me of how Connor McDavid took a little less money annually to allow the Oilers to have some “wiggle room” under the salary cap.
The Oilers rewarded him by trading Jordan Eberle, the team’s best right winger, after giving a few extra million and a few more years to the likes of Kris Russell and Milan Lucic.
So … thanks, Connor?
The belief from my corner has always been that even in a salary capped league like the NHL you have to keep your stars and you have to keep them happy, even if it means dedicating significant salary cap resources to a small number of players. The idea that you can not win with that sort of roster construction is completely unfounded because almost every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era has been built in such a manner.
If that means constantly trimming around the edges and always retooling your depth, the so be it. It is a heck of a lot easier to find third-and fourth-liners and second-and third-pairing defenders than it is to find another Auston Matthews or William Nylander.
There is no doubt that a lot of star players around the league have taken below market contracts, and if that is what they want to do, they are well within their rights to do that if they so choose. But it should not be the expectation, and their commitment to being part of a winning team should not be judged for not being willing to do it (especially when recent history shows it will not negatively impact the team’s chances of winning — if it knows what it is doing). If you’re a star, get paid like one, because as Ferraro pointed out your team may not correctly use that money you left them on the table, and they will not look out for you when they feel it is time to move on for any reason.
If the team can treat it like a business, so can the player.
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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.