NHL's RFA problem is more about the GMs, not the players

Yahoo Sports Canada

As we enter what feels like Week 6,000 of the Mitch Marner/Charlie McAvoy/Zach Werenski/Brayden Point/Mikko Rantanen saga, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we got here.

There are various points at which you can say the market for RFAs shifted from guys taking (often far) less than they were worth to guys getting paid market value. I tend to think it happened when William Nylander refused to sign for a penny less than he thought he was worth, dragging the saga until almost the start of December and, in doing so, sorta-kinda torpedoing his own season.

But others will contend it was when Leon Draisaitl — who’s often seen as more of a sidekick to Connor McDavid than a great player in his own right, capable of driving his own production — getting $8.5 million from the Oilers. But Edmonton is sometimes implicated going even farther back than that, to when Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle all got contracts that were, at the time, a bit rich.

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(This ignores the guys like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Auston Matthews, and Connor McDavid. They all cashed in big but they’re rightly seen as generational talents to whom normal rules simply don’t apply.)

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But apart from Nylander in the list above, doesn’t it seem like almost all those guys ended up having been, I don’t know, underpaid? The idea that Taylor Hall will make $6 million against the cap this season, as he has for the previous six, is at this point silly. Injuries aside, a player that good is worth a hell of a lot more than the $6-million AAV Timo Meier signed for on July 1.

Some of that value is, obviously, kind of built the way the salary cap works. When Hall signed his extension, it was worth 10 percent of the cap; today, Meier’s identical cap hit makes up less than 7.4 percent. But let me make a prediction here: If both players stay healthy, Hall’s very likely to be worth that extra 2.6 percent. And more.

And you can do this with any of the above. The Draisaitl signing was risky, but even if he only rides in McDavid’s sidecar for the foreseeable future, he’s likely to be worth more than even Sebastian Aho’s comparable cap hit. That’s not a knock on Aho, and certainly the McDavid factor can’t be ignored, but the point remains.

Teams with RFAs appear to be waiting for Mitch Marner to set the market. (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Teams with RFAs appear to be waiting for Mitch Marner to set the market. (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

So for all the grumbling about these guys resetting the market for RFAs and the Death of the Second Contract, you’d have a hard time arguing they’re not going to meet or exceed the value of their deals. Why? Because as the cap grows and 21- and 22-year-olds sign for big money, they’re doing so for the primes of their careers and maybe a couple years after, depending on the term. There’s a growing understanding in the league that really good players who have “only” been in the league two or three years can be — and often are — more valuable than really good players hitting UFA status at 27 and 28.

The former have room to grow, the latter not so much. It’s that simple. So while people around the league apparently feel more than welcome to complain behind demands of anonymity about Mitch Marner trying to get a double-digit AAV, none did the same when Florida gave Sergei Bobrovsky a $10-million AAV. But by the time Marner’s eventual deal ends, which will have been more “worth it” to the team giving out that deal? I have a guess!

What GMs are actually mad about is that they have to change the way they’ve done business forever. They can no longer rely on cronyism and whataboutism to get guys in their early 20s to take considerably less than they’re worth just so they can give some 29-year-old too much money for the next six years. Just because Morgan Rielly or Nazem Kadri took less than they deserved doesn’t mean Matthews, Nylander or Marner should.

Restricted free agency shouldn’t exist in the first place (neither should the draft, but that’s another take). But if it is going to exist, the only thing it should do is give controlling teams the ability to get compensation or the right to match if their RFA signs elsewhere.

And if that means we’re approaching a future where GMs no longer have the flexibility to give the Tyler Myerses of the world $6 million just because they’ve been in the league for eight years, then guess what? That’s RFAs doing them a favor.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here. All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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