Chris Johnston: The William Nylander stalemate is a cautionary tale for NHL teams with top restricted free agents still unsigned


The list of NHL players still without a contract for the coming season includes a recent first overall pick, 60-plus-point centreman, offensively gifted blueliner and the guy who finished second in both shots and hits last year.

What Rasmus Dahlin, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Brady Tkachuk also have in common is that none of them have yet reached their 23rd birthday.

As restricted free agents, the system doesn’t arm them with many leverage points to negotiate a fair market contract. The only way to force a deal is to sign an offer sheet like Jesperi Kotkaniemi did last month with Carolina. And that seldom-used option isn’t even available to Hughes or reigning Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov, who carry 10.2(c) status because they haven’t yet completed three NHL seasons.

At this stage, an unsigned RFA is basically banking on the pending arrival of training camp forcing some movement in negotiations.

A player’s absence when medicals are conducted on Wednesday would invite questions and potential distractions. And the closer the season gets without an impactful skater joining his team on the ice, the more urgency the general manager is bound to feel to end the stalemate.

This has become well-worn territory for young franchise cornerstones. Two years ago Mitch Marner, Brock Boeser, Brayden Point, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen and Kyle Connor all signed their second NHL contracts after training camps opened.

Last season it was Pierre-Luc Dubois and Mathew Barzal going down to the wire before signing bridge deals.

“You’ve got to know your worth, you’ve got to know what you’re worth to the team, because it’s a business,” said Dubois, who signed his deal with Columbus and was later traded to Winnipeg. “Sometimes you think it’s not a business and then you realize it’s just numbers at the end of the day.”

Having high-end young talent unsigned at this late stage of the summer has become such a routine part of NHL business that there doesn’t seem to be animus present in any of these negotiations.

The most intriguing situation is playing out in Vancouver because Pettersson and Hughes are the most valuable Canucks. And the organization will be hard-pressed to squeeze them into their roughly $15 million (U.S.) in available cap space without making some other kind of move.

Contract talks between the Leafs and William Nylander went right down to the Dec. 1 deadline in 2018. The forward went on to have his worst NHL season.

If Jim Benning could do it over again, he’d probably have pushed harder to get these extensions done before the summer.

The Canucks GM protected himself from a potential predatory offer sheet to Pettersson by clearing cap space with two buyouts and a blockbuster trade in July. But he also saw the market for Hughes jump when Cale Makar secured a $9-million average annual value on a six-year extension with Colorado.

He’s now at risk of seeing Pettersson gain another favourable comparable.

There are whispers that Kaprizov’s new deal in Minnesota could top $9 million annually. That would be a serious commitment from the Wild after just one NHL season, and if it were signed before Pettersson’s extension was completed it would work in his favour since Kaprizov is 19 months older and has produced at the exact same rate in less than a third of the total games (0.93 points per game).

Even coming off a season where he was slow out of the gate and missed significant time with a wrist injury, Pettersson holds a strong bargaining position. His camp is not believed to be pushing for the Marner deal — $10.9-million AAV over six years — but he’s in line for a big raise even on a shorter-term bridge contract.

Timing is now at the essence of each of these negotiations.

The only true deadline is Dec. 1 because that’s when a RFA must be signed in order to be eligible for the 2021-22 season. But there are psychological pseudo-deadlines coming into view, starting with camps opening and then moving on to pre-season games starting and eventually puck drop on Oct. 12.

It would be a surprise if any of these players missed regular-season games.

The memory of William Nylander’s lost 2018-19 season is still fresh enough to serve as a cautionary tale for everyone. That was the least productive of his six NHL campaigns and it came after contract talks with the Maple Leafs extended until just minutes before the Dec. 1 deadline.

He never caught up to his peers after the late start, and eventually questioned whether it was worth pushing talks so deep into the season.

“Yeah, I just wish I would have been here from the beginning,” Nylander said in April 2019. “I think that was probably one of the things that I regret about it.”

Pro hockey careers are too short for regrets.

Another season is about to start and it’s going to come with a heightened sense of urgency to get important business done.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris


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