The wait continues: Star RFAs remain unsigned as NHL awards winners take notice

Mark Giordano can’t recall an off-season like this one.

It wasn’t that the captain of the Calgary Flames became just the fourth player to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman at the age of 35 or older, a memorable moment up at the cottage or the summer weather.

What struck the veteran blueliner was the sheer number of young, star restricted free agents who sat unsigned — and remain unsigned — with training camps set to open in less than two weeks.

And like the hockey fans who pay attention to such things in July and August, the Toronto native was bombarded with the constant talk about if, when and how Mitch Marner and the Maple Leafs will come to terms on a new contract.

“[In] Toronto,” Giordano said, “the ‘Marner Watch’ is every day.”

There’s no doubt most stories in Canada’s biggest media market get magnified, but the Leafs’ star winger is far from the only player still waiting on a new deal.

Giordano’s teammate, winger Matthew Tkachuk, is part of a long list that includes Colorado Avalanche workhorse Mikko Rantanen, forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks sniper Brock Boeser, Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brayden Point and Boston Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy.

“It’s one of those situations where one guy will sign and everyone else will sort of fall into place,” Giordano said.

Game of dominoes

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid — who earlier this week told reporters at the BioSteel camp in Toronto that his biggest worry was missing time when he signed his eight-year, $100-million US contract extension just four days after becoming eligible in 2017 — agreed with the assessment of his provincial rival.

“It’s obviously a unique situation where a lot of star players are sitting out right now,” McDavid said. “I think it’ll just take one domino to fall and they’ll all fall pretty quick.

“But someone’s going to have to set that mark.”

Calgary Flames defenceman Mark Giordano (5) celebrates a goal against the Colorado Avalanche with teammate Matthew Tkachuk, who remains in restricted free-agency limbo. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

And that’s the issue facing general managers league, many of whom find themselves with little salary cap wiggle room.

As big contracts get doled out sooner, how will it impact the market both this season and going forward? Dollar figures are of course paramount, but term is also important because shorter contracts mean stars reaching unrestricted free agency sooner.

“It’s great for players, but I think it makes it hard to keep teams together,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “These guys are looking for big contracts so much earlier.”

‘You’re worth what you’re worth’

Foligno’s teammate, defenceman Zach Werenski, is another RFA in need of a deal with players set to report for testing and physicals on Sept. 11.

“There’s so much responsibility put on young guys now that they should be compensated for it,” Foligno said. “That’s the give and take in our league. As far as the contracts, they’re handing them out so we’re going to take them.

“You’re worth what you’re worth.”

Columbus Blue Jackets’ Zach Werenski is a marquee defenceman yet to be signed as a restricted free agent. (Jay LaPrete/The Associated Press)

Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl said each situation will sort itself out.

“A lot of great players out there,” he said. “But I’m sure they’ll all be playing hockey [this season].”

Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Erik Gudbranson added that contract impasses are simply part of the game.

“They have to make moves they believe suit themselves, and I completely understand,” he said. “That’s where the tough part of the business comes in. Sometimes you have to make plays like that.”

Unrivalled summer

St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington inked a two-year, $8.8-million contract soon after hitting RFA status in July. He could have pushed the envelope in negotiaions following a meteoric rise that helped his club win the Stanley Cup, but preferred to instead “let the money chase you.”

“Those guys are pretty elite,” Binnington said of the unsigned stars. “They’ve put themselves in a position to look out for themselves, but at the same time you want to be part of the whole process for the whole year with the team and group building together.”

Washington Capitals winger Tom Wilson signed a RFA deal with his team worth $31 million over six years last July. He said it’s impossible to judge individual situations unless you’re in a particular player’s shoes.

“To each their own,” he said. “They’re going to try and do what’s best for them. I was fortunate where I was happy to be a Capital and the Capitals were happy to have me, but you’ve got to look out for yourself.

“It was a somewhat easy process compared to some of these situations.”

Situations that Giordano, and many other established players across the league, will continue to watch with interest.

“There’s so many RFAs in that same boat,” Giordano said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen [a summer] like this.”

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