As bored hockey fans noticed during this slow summer, star NHL players rarely become free agents. Truthfully, most notable players don’t even flirt with the drama of a contract year, signing extensions a full season early.
Yet, with the 2023-24 NHL campaign approaching, there are plenty of contract-year situations that could get dramatic — and maybe alter the balance of power in the process. One way or another, we're sure to get answers in short order about the futures of Elias Pettersson, William Nylander and Steven Stamkos, as well as several other significant NHL players currently approaching contract years.
Canucks: Elias Pettersson
Do you know how great Elias Pettersson truly is? Even after a 102-point season, people may still sleep on his elite status.
Simply put, Pettersson ranks as a top-20 skater in the NHL. Just look at where he ranks in Goals Above Replacement during the past three seasons, via Evolving Hockey.
As clueless as Canucks management often appears, they wouldn’t choose to leave things unsettled with their 24-year-old superstar. Instead, it seems like Pettersson (a pending RFA) needs some convincing to stick around.
Pettersson blamed others for making his contract situation a “distraction,” but the stakes are enormous for the Canucks. If they flop and Pettersson wants out, it would be a full-fledged disaster.
“It's not a distraction. You guys make it a distraction”: Pettersson not bothered by contract status with #Canucks https://t.co/R9DvpzAl6p
Pettersson applauds Hughes' captaincy promotion: 'He's more than ready' https://t.co/zAf3rae0g4 pic.twitter.com/3I8E9Y2NS8
— Farhan Lalji (@FarhanLaljiTSN) September 21, 2023
Now, technically, the Canucks can afford to give Pettersson the raise he deserves. The tricky part is that this franchise failed him on a team-friendly $7.35-million cap hit. Pettersson himself may question whether this squad can surround him with a decent supporting cast when that cap number goes up closer to what he’s actually worth.
If any part of the hold-up is the Canucks trying to deny just how special Pettersson is … well, then this franchise is somehow even more lost than it looks.
Maple Leafs: William Nylander
Speaking of stars who aren’t always appreciated, let’s consider the fuzzy future of potential UFA William Nylander.
Nylander produced his first 40-goal campaign in 2022-23, and he’s on a run of consecutive 80-plus point seasons, setting a career-high of 87 last year. While some downplay the versatility of the Swedish forward, it’s telling that the Maple Leafs are experimenting with Nylander at center.
A possible new look for centre depth and an idea that was brought forth by the GM himself, More on Nylander’s move to center from Nick ⤵️ https://t.co/f3M0QNSfja
— David Alter (@dalter) September 20, 2023
Long story short: Nylander likely deserves to become the latest $10M-plus Maple Leafs forward, but it sounds like the 27-year-old will leave such haggling to his agent.
William Nylander reiterates multiple times that he wants to stay in Toronto and he’ll let his agent handle contract negotiations. Nylander said he’ll play anywhere Sheldon Keefe tells him.
— Arun Srinivasan (@Arunthings) September 21, 2023
With three players making more than $10M already — including Auston Matthews jumping to $13.25M starting next season — there’s the natural debate of should the Maple Leafs continue to operate as such a top-heavy joint by bumping Nylander up to that range.
Interestingly, it sure seems like they could, though. According to Cap Friendly, the Maple Leafs have about $54.1M devoted to 12 roster spots. Retaining Nylander would almost certainly lock Toronto into being a top-heavy team, one that also needs to judge contract years for the likes of Ilya Samsonov, Tyler Bertuzzi, T.J. Brodie, John Klingberg and Max Domi.
Expect the Maple Leafs to look very different after next season — with or without Nylander.
Goalies are the great conundrum of hockey team-building. No single person can make or break a playoff run quite like a goalie can. Unfortunately, the sport’s most important position is also its most difficult to predict.
Look at Hellebuyck’s truly rare year-after-year production and unmatched workload, and you’d think the Jets would have landed a proper trade offer for the 30-year-old goalie.
Apparently, that opportunity didn’t arise — and the Jets also weren’t enticed for high-scoring, scarcely-defending center Mark Scheifele, either.
Maybe a lack of big Jets trades boils down to the team taking a win-now approach instead of embracing a rebuild? Around training camp, the word was that just about anything can happen: new contracts, in-season trades, or even Scheifele and/or Hellebuyck walking right to free agency.
— Scott Billeck (@ScottBilleck) September 20, 2023
Knock Scheifele’s all-around game if you like, but he’s coming off a 42-goal season and marks the coveted box of right-handed top center (or maybe an overqualified 2C on a contender). Additionally, as risky as goalie investments appear, it’s not outrageous to imagine Hellebuyck being the final piece for a strong team that’s weak in net.
Such players could conceivably fetch a nice return on the trade market, especially if Winnipeg embraces building for the future rather than short-term thinking. As of this moment, it seems like the franchise is willing to roll the dice on a number of risks: the health of those two players, how hot or cold streaks can affect perception, and even the dangerous prospect of signing aging players to extensions.
We’ll see if these gambles pay off for the Jets.
Echoing the Jets’ situation in some ways, key Calgary Flames free agents seemed like goners going into the summer, only to switch back to contract-year question marks as this season begins.
I'm a little iffy on Lindholm for a huge 8-year extension... He's a good player of course but his skillset is a lot more dependent on linemates than most guys in that pricerange. pic.twitter.com/Ex8HtjxtWD
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) June 22, 2023
After looking like he was headed out the door, Noah Hanifin changed to a wait-and-see approach with the Flames. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman indicates that multiple Flames players cooled off after going into the summer with emotions running hot.
The "could" versus "should" debate rings true in Calgary, too. After all, the Flames missed the playoffs with this core group — one that no longer includes last year's leading scorer Tyler Toffoli. Some may argue it’s too late to refresh the Flames, noting the big money going to Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri. Others will counter that the Flames could end up paying superstar prices for merely good players, punching an expensive ticket to puck purgatory.
The Flames match the Jets in being a team that could easily make or miss the playoffs, and face judgment calls about whether it’s even wise to bring back players on contract years. Calgary also parallels Toronto in just how many potential free agents they must consider. Beyond Lindholm and Hanifin, there’s also Chris Tanev and others lingering on expiring contracts.
Interestingly, that means Calgary could make a big impact on the playoff race, the trade deadline and the 2024 NHL free agent market. They’re a group to watch whether they succeed or fail.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos
In a league where almost everything is kept private, it’s staggering to see Stamkos and the Lightning speak so openly about his unsettled contract situation. Stamkos expressed disappointment about a lack of an extension, while the Lightning want to “gather more information.”
“In order for me to do that, I feel like I need to gather more information, I need to see how this season plays out. I need to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit this year. I need to see who steps up and is able to handle a bigger role.” (More)
— Lightning Insider (@Erik_Erlendsson) September 20, 2023
If Stamkos retired today, he’d already have a legitimate Hall of Fame argument, scoring 515 goals and 1,056 points, all with the Lightning. It makes sense that he’s struck by the Lightning’s reticence, especially looking at a roster loaded with long-term contracts.
Clearly, the Lightning factor in the “aging curve,” as their lengthier deals are focused on players younger than their 33-year-old captain.
When you consider some of the factors that may actually limit the salary cap’s growth, and take a sober look at how snipers like Stamkos sometimes fade with age, the Lightning’s cold approach makes bottom-line sense.
Considering his reputation and still-impressive production, the Lightning likely realize Stamkos could command big dollars as a free agent. Maybe they worry that they wouldn’t get their money’s worth, especially considering good-but-not-great underlying stats?
Definitely future a HHOFer. For us, it's a bit crazy that Stamkos is still "only" 33 years old. He's been in the NHL for a long time already, man. Still great offensive forward. https://t.co/Xi6KbYVaP3 pic.twitter.com/UHJfk18BRZ
— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) April 3, 2023
Really, both Stamkos and the Lightning have a point here, and such a divide may just liven up the free-agent market next summer.
While some key free agents shrugged their shoulders at possibly playing through contract years, Devon Toews distinguished himself by saying he’d like to get things settled with the Avalanche.
For one more season, the Avalanche get to trot out a No.1-level defenseman at the laughable price of $4.1M. They can also try out the line: “you can’t make more than Cale Makar ($9M), can you?”
Perhaps the hesitation is mostly in Colorado’s camp. After all, Toews turns 30 on Feb. 21, so the Avs may balk at paying market value for one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL.
In the grand scheme of things, it would be surprising if the Avalanche can’t reach a deal with Toews. Few defensemen of his caliber become available, so if things go sideways, it would be a major development.
Did the Ottawa Senators strike major blows to “bridge” contracts (most recently with the Jake Sanderson extension) or might a team like the Anaheim Ducks keep that practice alive with still-unsigned pillars Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale? Such situations are worth watching for the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres, two teams with two sets of crucial contract years to consider.
With 21-year-old forward Lucas Raymond and 22-year-old defenseman Moritz Seider, the Red Wings’ salary cap outlook will really come into focus once those deals are settled. Perhaps the Red Wings can find value with Raymond (whose career highs are a promising-but-modest 23 goals and 57 points), but it’s hard to imagine any defenseman of Seider’s caliber signing cheap. The Senators truly may have set a new precedent by paying Sanderson before he ever produced the sort of offensive numbers that often draw big extensions.
Interestingly, the Sabres’ nice value with Rasmus Dahlin ($6M, now 23 years old) may rank as one of the last gasps of bridge deals for truly top-level defensive prospects. Perhaps they hope they can convince Owen Power to accept that sort of bridge, yet the top pick of the 2021 draft may be foolish to bite.
It’s easy to get excited about Buffalo right now. How will people view the Sabres’ salary cap structure once Dahlin gets paid like the Norris-scale defenseman he is, and Power signs his second contract, though?
Don’t be surprised if one or more of these contract year situations gets settled before the regular season begins. A few may also end up resolved in-season. Still, the scene is set for some really interesting moves, ones that can alter playoff races, the strength of the trade deadline and the quality of the 2024 UFA market.
It should be fun for anyone not tasked with hashing out tense contract negotiations.