It’s been nearly a month now since the free agent market first opened and most of the signings and trades that we’re going to see are already in the rear-view mirror. Not all of the summer’s big questions have been answered though, so today we’re going to highlight the big storylines still remaining.
How Will The RFA Market Unfold?
This is a huge storyline that doesn’t seem anywhere close to being resolved. A lot of the attention has been focused on Mitch Marner, but the reality is that he’s only one of several major RFAs that remain unsigned. Brayden Point, Patrik Laine, Zachary Werenski, Mikko Rantanen, Matthew Tkachuk, Kyle Connor, and Brock Boeser all need contracts too. That’s a ton of money that still has to be handed out.
It will be interesting to see how many of these RFAs bleed into training camp and perhaps even the regular season. Traditionally, I wouldn’t have been overly concerned about RFA holdouts, but William Nylander’s saga coupled with the big jump in expectations for high-end RFAs coming off their entry-level contract has really changed the dynamic. Beyond that, it’s just rare for there to be this many good RFAs. Four of them recorded over 75 points last season and five of them scored at least 30 goals.
Honestly, the Montreal Canadiens did the Carolina Hurricanes a huge favor by offer sheeting Sebastian Aho. Sure, the front-ended bonus heavy nature of Aho’s contract isn’t ideal for Carolina, but at least they avoided the whole “when will he sign and for how much” question and ultimately his $8,454,000 annual cap hit over the next five years might end up looking fairly reasonable compared to how the rest of the RFA market shakes out.
One more thing I want to add about this topic is that while Marner is the one who has gotten the most attention, Laine is the one I find most interesting. A year ago, Laine would have probably been the one headlining this RFA group. He looked like the next Alex Ovechkin after scoring 44 goals in his sophomore season. Laine struggled significantly in his third season though and even though he still scored 30 goals, he was extremely hot-and-cold. The question now is how much that shaky season hurt him and if he’ll still end up with a five or more year contract or if he’ll instead have to settle for a bridge deal.
Why is Jake Gardiner still unsigned?
He’s the last remaining major UFA left on the market, especially when you consider that Justin Williams, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau are all special cases. Gardiner is 29-years-old and was hoping to get his big payday this summer. That hasn’t happened and at this point it might not happen.
There are certainly knocks on Gardiner. Leafs fans will point to Gardiner’s missteps in Game 7s against Boston and he’s dealt with some back problems. However, an MRI in June came back clean and assuming he’s healthy, he’s a top-four defenseman who can make significant offensive contributions. He could bolster a lot of team’s defense and anyone still sitting on cap space frankly doesn’t have much else left in terms of options.
So why hasn’t anyone signed him? Ultimately it seems like the only real news here is speculation. My theory is that both Gardiner and NHL teams are waiting for the other to blink. Gardiner is still hoping that if he waits long enough, some team will ultimately meet something close to his original demands, albeit perhaps with a shorter term, while teams feel like eventually he’ll cave as we get closer to training camp and settle for a one or two-year deal.
It’s worth noting that Elliotte Friedman recently said on Sportsnet 590 that Gardiner might end up needing to settle for a one-year deal in order to re-establish his value. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure if re-signing with Toronto for the 2019-20 campaign would be his destination in that scenario. It would have to depend on how much Marner signs for (provided he signs before training camp at all) because the Maple Leafs might not be able to fit Gardiner under the cap, even for a one-year contract.
Where will Nikita Gusev play next season?
Technically this falls under the RFA category, but Gusev is a whole different story compared to players like Marner or Point. Gusev is a 27-year-old KHL star who scored 17 goals and 82 points in 62 games last season. The Vegas Golden Knights control his negotiating rights, but there is reportedly a wide gap between what he’s demanding and the team’s offer. Complicating matters is Vegas’ cap situation. The Golden Knights have roughly $1 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, which isn’t enough to sign him. He reportedly is seeking a contract in the ballpark of a two-year, $8 million deal. They could of course find ways to clear space in order to fit him in under the ceiling, but it comes down to how much they believe in him.
The Golden Knights haven’t given up on signing him, but there has been interest around the league in acquiring him and Vegas might end up going down that path. There’s also still a chance that this will end with him heading back to the KHL, which is something his agent recently suggested was still on the table.
If he does play in the NHL next season then he’ll be a player to keep a close eye on. KHL stars are a bit of a mixed bag, but some of them shine in the NHL. Artemi Panarin is the most obvious example. He scored 26 goals and 62 points in 54 KHL contests in his final season before making the leap to the NHL.
How will the Rangers get under the cap ceiling?
After signing Jacob Trouba to a seven-year, $56 million contract, New York is reportedly about $1 million over the cap without even factoring in RFAs Anthony DeAngelo, Brendan Lemieux, and Pavel Buchnevich. In other words, the Rangers need to do something between now and the start of the season to get under the ceiling and the only question now is what.
One obvious route the Rangers could take is a buyout. Kevin Shattenkirk, who has two seasons left on his four-year, $26.6 million contract, and Brendan Smith, who has two seasons left on his four-year, $17.4 million contract, are the two popular choices when people talk about a Rangers buyout. The Rangers could also potentially address the issue with a trade.
Chris Kreider would be an interesting option. He has a fair amount of trade value, so the Rangers would get value back for him and because he has just a season left on his contract, he might not fit into New York’s long-term plans anyways. It would be more painful to let him go than say Smith, but at least then they wouldn’t have to deal with four years of cap tolls from a Smith buyout on top of the four years left on Dan Girardi’s buyout.
Are we going to see any of the major 2020 UFAs re-sign before training camp?
There are some major players who are eligible to become UFAs next summer including Taylor Hall, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Pietrangelo, Tyson Barrie, and Braden Holtby. It will be interesting to see if any of them sign before the season starts, thus ending any potential questions about their future lingering into the campaign.
Hall doesn’t seem to be in any rush to re-sign and we haven’t heard much about Backstrom or Holtby either, so it would be surprising if anything was imminent, but once we get closer to camp, talks with those players might heat up.