We are now mere days away from the start of NHL training camps, and in many cases rookies and veterans alike have already taken the ice for informal workouts, captains' practices, and the like.
The problem with that, though, is that there is a fairly surprising number of restricted free agents who enter the season without a contract, and that could be a part of a very troubling trend for teams going forward.
It's probably safe to say that a lot of players around the league weren't especially happy with the terms foisted upon them – in so draconian a manner – by the owners as they brought the lockout to its merciful end last January. It gave players less of a chance to earn a lot of money for a longer period of their careers — for the good of the league and all that — and simultaneously seems to have taken away a lot of rights for restricted free agency that could help the younger players in particular to earn paydays commensurate with their skill levels.
What the new CBA also seems to have done is allowed teams to start digging in their heels once again over the "second contract" or "bridge contract" or "not especially fair contract" that had become so much less prevalent in the wake of the Second Bettman Lockout (2BL).
Kevin Lowe, of course, is the reason that type of contract ceased to be a common thing in the NHL, having extended massive offer sheets to both Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner in the summer of 2007 and inspiring that whole barn-fightin', name-callin' feud with Brian Burke. With those two deals — one accepted by the Ducks, the other matched by the Sabres — RFA contracts got, in the view of teams themselves, seriously out of whack.
To some extent, too, that was true. After all, Penner pulled $4.25 million a year against the cap on that offer sheet, and Vanek's likewise landed him more than $7.14 million. This was when the salary cap was just $50.3 million altogether. The percentage of that money against the cap would have made them worth $5.4 million and $9.13 million, respectively in today's dollars. Now, granted, Vanek was coming off his career-best season at 43 goals and 84 points, and so it might have been reasonable to assume that he'd be due somewhere north of $8 million at this point, but Penner was the David Clarkson of his era, racking up 29 goals and 45 points (albeit following a dominant season at the AHL level).
Other RFAs, and their agents, looked at those deals and said, "Me too." Prior to that, they'd generally been paid more on their second deals than on their entry-level contracts, as you might expect, but they were typically not yet cashing in the big bucks that production like Vanek's 40-plus-goal-and-point-a-game season would have been due to someone on an expiring deal who, say, had some unrestricted years in his very near future. It used to be that the only way to cash in on major production for the most part was to wait out UFA status. After the Lowe offer sheets, that was no longer the case. It only makes sense.
All of which brings us to the present, and a time during which young players are paid for their production, for the most part (some remain, somewhat bafflingly, paid for their potential, which is something that's not always easy to understand; frankly, one need look no deeper than the James van Riemsdyk debacle in Philadelphia a few years ago to see how that kind of thing will often turn out). Being paid the same at 22 that a 28-year-old producing about the same amount seems like a wholly equitable way of doing things.
Which is why it's so weird to see what's happening across the league now.
With the advent of this new and allegedly improved collective bargaining agreement, teams seem once again emboldened to try to hold guys coming off their ELCs to the old adage that you can't get paid until you've been in the league a good four or five years at minimum. The problem with this is that it's a sad and potentially very costly attempt to close the barn doors about six years after Kevin Lowe threw them open and started throwing rocks at the horses and yelling, "You get outta here! Go on now git!"
Not that there hadn't been more holdouts during the time between the two most recent lockouts, with at least Drew Doughty and Kyle Turris having gone through their own at the beginning of the 2011-12 season. Turris's lasted until late November, whereupon he signed with Phoenix, played six games, and was packed off to Ottawa with a deal that paid him just $1.4 million against the cap (though honestly, with his piddling production in Phoenix, that sounds just about right). Doughty, of course, cashed in, as well he should have.
But that's extremely few holdouts over the course of seven offseasons. Fans of the teams involved would likely tell you that one is too many, but only having been through two of note says a lot about teams' willingness to accommodate most demands. Remember, too, that the Kings buckled and gave Doughty more or less what he wanted, making him the highest-paid King for the following eight seasons. That seems like something that isn't going to happen very much any more.
The Avalanche put their foot down with Ryan O'Reilly, and he probably only came back into the fold because of that hilarious Calgary offer sheet fiasco, having missed the first 19 or so games of the season. Likewise, the Canadiens went through their own negotiations with PK Subban in a similar fashion but were able to get him to come aboard at a far lower salary than a player of his caliber would under normal circumstances command.
And just in case any observers thought that kind of thing was a one-off quirk of the lockout-shortened season that wouldn't have much bearing on future negotiations, well, NHL general managers seem not to see it that way. A larger number of good, young players you'd have expected teams to clamor to sign, oh, around late June remain bizarrely unsigned. Alex Pietrangelo, one of the best young defenseman in the league — if not one of the best defensemen of any age, full stop — remains without contract.
So does eighth-in-points-per-60 Nazem Kadri.
So does Rangers wunderkind and probable Olympian Derek Stepan.
So does Cody Hodgson so does Jard Cowen so does Marcus Johansson so does Cody Franson so does Mikkel Boedker.
These are legitimate full-time NHL players who have been playing in the league awhile now, and whose only offense in their rightsholders' eyes is wanting to be paid what one can assume to be reasonable amounts of money.
The Kadri situation has gotten most of the heat, and for good reason, given where he plays (the center of the hockey universe), what he did (was almost point-a-game despite getting crap minutes), and how the Leafs managed their finances this summer (like idiots), and also because Darren Dreger has spent most of the last week delighting in calling just about every Canadian sports talk station in existence and saying that Kadri should take the insulting, peanuts deal the Leafs are offering him because if he doesn't he must not want to be in Toronto; though the TSN Insider largely does this without ever disclosing who his second cousin is because oh by the way it's Dave Nonis and that's something that should be vaguely important in this context.
Granted, at least a few of these might be sorted out before camps open five days from now. But it looks like at least some won't, and that NHL teams are willing to let camps open without some very influential, promising young players on the roster. It obviously remains to be seen whether they're willing to enter the season itself without having these guys signed, or vice versa for that matter.
Either way, though, the situation is becoming more common, and one has to wonder whether this too will be just a kind of one-off; after all, the cap isn't likely to go down again any time soon, so this could all be a reaction to the fact that teams suddenly had $5.9 million less wiggle room.
Or it could be that teams are really going to start enforcing the rebirth of the second contract as a means of artificially keeping the cap down, resting safe in the knowledge that the likelihood of an offer sheet sweeping their players away is infinitesimal.
If this is indeed a line in the sand, the next few autumns are going to be very interesting. Just maybe not for fans of teams with high-quality restricted free agents.