Training camp is already well underway, but there still are some major players that are big question marks going into the season. Of course, we’ve seen contract holdouts in the past before, but having this many high profile RFAs still unsigned is unusual and because of what Mitch Marner ended up getting, some of these contract negotiations could easily end up dragging into the regular season.
That could have a major impact on fantasy teams and it’s already influencing how people draft. Keep in mind, that when players, especially young players, missing a good chunk or all of training camp, it tends to hinder their performance for a while afterwards, so with every day these players go unsigned, the risk of them underperforming in 2019-20 increases.
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Meanwhile, there’s another major situation potentially playing out right now. Dustin Byfuglien isn’t with the Winnipeg Jets right now for personal reasons and he’s reportedly considering retirement. The Jets’ defense already took a hit over the summer and losing Byfuglien on top of that would be a major blow for them. It might also lead to a major trade just before the start of the season.
With all these big moving parts right now, it seems like a good time to take stock of where we are by addressing what we know – or at least think we know – about each of these players’ situations at this time.
Brayden Point – Agent Gerry Johansson decided to publicly vent his frustrations on Thursday, saying that the Lightning and Point aren’t close to a contract. If a recent report suggesting that the Lightning’s last offer to Point was a three-year contract with a cap hit of $5.7 million then it’s not hard to see why. Point likely wants to use Marner’s six-year, $65,358,000 contract as his comparable, but in the case of Tampa Bay that might not be a realistic ask.
The Lightning have $67,391,666 committed to 13 players for the 2020-21 campaign even without Point or upcoming RFA Mikhail Sergachev, so they simply aren’t in a position to offer Point a massive payday unless they make a trade. The Lightning’s cap situation also leaves them rather vulnerable to an offer sheet. If another team were to offer Point, for example, a five-year, $50 million contract, then the Lightning would have an extremely tough time matching it and even if they did, it would cause significant problems for them down the road. Johansson did say that his client isn’t pursuing offer sheets, but if this continues to drag on then perhaps that will change. It’s also worth noting that if this drags into the season, then the situation becomes a bigger headache for Tampa Bay. That’s because the first year of the contract will become prorated and consequently the first-year cap hit will become increasingly more extreme the later into the season this goes. Given the Lightning’s cap situation for 2019-20, that will make it harder to fit Point’s contract in under the cap and make them even more vulnerable to an offer sheet.
Matthew Tkachuk – There’s been arguably less useable information regarding the Tkachuk negotiations than any of the other remaining RFAs, which is a bit of a shame because this situation is so interesting. Tkachuk broke out last season with 34 goals and 77 points in 80 games and come with the added bonus of being a power forward. What makes his position particularly interesting though is the Flames’ cap situation.
The Flames only have roughly $6.46 million in available cap space, per CapFriendly. Keep in mind what I already mentioned with Point about how the first year of the contract will become prorated. It’s already doubtful that the Flames will be able to fit Tkachuk under the cap without some maneuvering. If this drags on too long, it could become a huge problem. It’s likely that the Flames are going to have to make a trade, but the question is who. TJ Brodie was a popular candidate during the summer and Michael Frolik might also make some sense. Both are in the final season of their contract and come with cap hits in excess of $4 million, so trading either of them would leave Calgary with enough space to fit in Tkachuk.
As is the case with Point, the Flames are particularly vulnerable to an offer sheet. They might be able to match whatever comes their way, but it would involve them scrambling to make a trade from a position of weakness given that the rest of the league would see them as a motivated seller.
Kyle Connor – Offer sheets have been a recurring theme and in the case of Kyle Connor, it’s a particularly popular topic. Last week it was reported that three teams have been exploring the possibility of presenting Connor with an offer sheet. I’m on the fence about whether Connor is a good target though. Winnipeg has $15.45 million in cap space according to CapFriendly. Sure, they also need to re-sign Patrik Laine too, which I’ll get to next, but the point remains that they have the ability to match an offer sheet here.
Plus, of all the players on this list, Connor should be the most affordable. He had 31 goals and 57 points in 2017-18 and 34 goals and 66 points last season, so clearly he’s a great young player. He’s just not quite the superstar like Marner, Point, and Rantanen nor does he have the elite potential of Laine. Connor’s going to command a big payday, but he can’t hold up Marner as a comparable to the same extent the others might want to. Of all the RFAs highlighted in this article, I think Connor will be the first to sign.
Patrik Laine – Laine had 36 goals and 64 points as a rookie and 44 goals and 70 points in his sophomore campaign. If his third season had gone like that, he’d be among those pushing for Marner-like numbers, but instead the 2018-19 campaign was a shaky one for him. At times, he was brilliant, but for long stretches of the season, he was ineffective. He still averaged out to having value with 30 goals and 50 points in 82 games, but that’s a far cry from the extremely high expectations people had going into the 2018-19 campaign.
Unlike the rest of the remaining RFAs I’m talking about here, a long-term contract is likely off the table. It just doesn’t make sense to do that when there’s so much uncertainty about his future. Is he the second coming of Alex Ovechkin or should 2018-19 be taken as a big warning sign? It’s better for both sides to settle on a bridge contract for now and see what he does over the next couple of seasons.
Clearly there is still some debate over what that bridge contract should look like though, otherwise he’d have already signed. Brock Boeser recently signed a three-year contract with a $5.875 million cap hit which might now serve as a comparable. Boeser has plenty of potential, but hasn’t fully lived up to it yet. It would still make sense for Laine to command more than Boeser, but maybe $6-7 million annually over a three-year contract would be palatable for both sides? We’ll find out.
I got to admit though, of all the players to try to hold out, Laine is the most vulnerable. His 2018-19 campaign was already rough and now he’s disrupting his ability to properly get ready for 2019-20? I realize this is his livelihood we’re talking about, but in the long run, a bad 2019-20 might cost him financially and having that kind of rough campaign is becoming increasingly possible as he misses more and more of camp.
Mikko Rantanen – This RFA situation might be particularly difficult to navigate. Agent Mike Liut feels that Mitch Marner is a close comparable to Rantanen, but the Avalanche haven’t been swayed by the six-year, $65.358 million contract Marner ended up signing. Instead, they’re trying to lock Rantanen up to a six-to-eight year contract with an annual cap hit of $8.4 million to $8.75 million. That seems like something Rantanen isn’t likely to sign given that it’s not only well below what Marner’s getting, but also a worse contract than Sebastian Aho got when you factor in the length.
Maybe the solution is a bridge deal, but the problem there is that’s probably not palatable to the Avalanche. Gabriel Landeskog and goaltender Philipp Grubauer only have two years left on their contracts. Plus the Avalanche are looking ahead to Nathan MacKinnon, who has four years left on his team-friendly seven-year, $44.1 million contract and will command a huge payday after that deal is done, so locking Rantanen up now is in the Avalanche’s best interests.
It’s also worth noting that the Avalanche are currently swimming in cap space. That affords them flexibility, but it also means that an offer sheet likely isn’t a way out of this situation. Why would any other team bother trying when they know that Colorado would just match it? Thus an offer sheet would serve little purpose beyond getting Rantanen to start playing for the Avalanche. This is one situation I could see dragging on deep into the year if Colorado holds firm on their desire not to allow the Marner contract to dictate the market.
Dustin Byfuglien – Obviously this one is a very different situation. Byfuglien isn’t a RFA or even unsigned. However, as mentioned above, he is reportedly considering retirement. Whether he’ll ultimately go that route is something I can’t speculate on. That’s a very personal decision and ultimately I hope he does what he feels is best. What I can do is talk about what might happen if he does retire.
First off, it’d be a big problem for the Jets. He led Winnipeg in average ice time last season with 24:22 minutes and the Jets already traded away the defenseman that finished second in that category, Jacob Trouba and parted ways with two other prominent blueliners in Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. In other words, the Jets’ defensive situation was already suspect and losing Byfuglien would throw gasoline on that fire. On top of all that, the Jets still have two unsigned RFAs as we’ve discussed above, so there is a lot of major issues facing Winnipeg right now.
At this point, if Byfuglien were to retire the Jets would really need to decide what their course is. Winnipeg was a major contender in 2017-18 and 2018-19, but after losing so much, are they still prepared to go all-in for 2019-20? The Jets do have some relatively young core pieces to build around, including Laine and Connor, if they do decide shift their focus towards competing seriously again in a couple of years. However, there are also some young defensemen potentially on the trade market who would allow them to avoid choosing between winning now and setting up for a future run. Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen would fit that bill. He’s recorded over 40 points in four straight campaigns while logging over 24 minutes in each of those seasons and he’s only 24-years-old (25 in October). To make things even better, he comes with a very reasonable $5.4 million cap hit for each of the next three years.
There was plenty of trade speculation about Ristolainen over the summer, but ultimately nothing came of that. Still, if Byfuglien does retire then that might be all the motivation the Jets need to take the plunge. Buffalo’s asking price is reportedly rather high though and the Sabres have every reason to keep it that way given that sticking with Ristolainen is a perfectly fine scenario for them.
Justin Faulk is also believed to be on the trade block, though he’s less ideal. He’d be a fit right now, but he can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, so he might end up being more of a stopgap than the mid-term solution the Jets would be better off pursuing.
It’s still possible that Laine, Connor, and Byfuglien will all be in the lineup for the Jets when their season opens, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if the Jets take a big step back this season.