It’s not just Mitch Marner.
Across the league, key young players remain without contracts. Big names like Patrik Laine, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikko Rantanen, Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski and more.
They are restricted free agents, whose only leverage is to withhold their services to get the best deal possible.
“There’s lots of guys, not just Mitch,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. “There’s a lot of really good players not signed yet. Everybody is playing the waiting game. Still got some time before camp.”
Players around the league, especially those who have been through it before, are taking notice.
“I think you can make arguments a lot of those players deserve to be paid a lot of money,” said New Jersey defenceman P.K. Subban, who twice went through contract talks as a restricted free agent. “Players have to do what’s best for them, whatever that is.”
They are taking a page out of the playbook used by William Nylander and others in recent years. It can anger fans, upset the chemistry of a team, and shake up a team’s salary structure.
“Look at the star power, it’s potentially damaging to some teams,” Bruins defenceman Torey Krug said. “I’ve been through it personally, missed a few weeks of camp. It’s more uncertainty with how each individual guys deals with it.”
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said it’s unfair the focus is on the players’ demands and to link winning a Cup to how a player fits into a team’s cap.
“I haven’t met too many guys that don’t want to win a Stanley Cup and that don’t want to preserve the state of their team to be able to win a Cup. But the rules are geared toward having the players make that sacrifice to win a Stanley Cup. People say if a guy wants more money, then it must mean he doesn’t want to win. It doesn’t make sense. The league is so young now that if you don’t make as much as you can as early as you can, you might be in trouble.
“You’ve got to look out for what’s right for you. There’s no guarantees for how long you’re going to play in this league.”
Some call it a flaw in the collective bargaining agreement that these players — coming off entry-level deals — don’t have arbitration rights. But that’s not how commissioner Gary Bettman sees it.
“When people look at the RFAs, they’re getting lumped together,” Bettman said. “But they’re a series of individual negotiations. It’s not like they’re not being offered anything by the clubs. The clubs have been offering each player a contract. The players want more. And at some point they’ll figure it out.”
The likely result is that most will sign short-term contracts. That’s probably the smart play. The league is looking for a new U.S. TV contract in two years and the number $750 million (U.S.) a year is being bandied about — more than three times the current contract with NBC. Players who are free agents then will be the first to cash in.
It’s up to the individual player, according to NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr.
“I would like them all to have the contracts they want,” Fehr said. “That’s not probably the world that we live in. So that’s a matter that we leave to the individual player to decide.”
Coming off an entry-level deal in 2012-13, Subban signed a two-year bridge deal with the Montreal Canadiens for $2.875 million a year. Times have changed. These players are asking for much more, more in the $8-million range.
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Subban doesn’t begrudge them that. The salary cap is bigger, and their star power is stronger.
“The collective bargaining agreement has forced teams to bring in young players, and play them earlier,” Subban said. “You’re seeing a lot of young players being played earlier, and having success earlier in their career. Whereas before, it took guys until they were 25, 26 before they started coming into their own. Auston Matthews is what, 21, and like, wow. Seriously, he’s already one of the top players in the league.”
And paid accordingly, at an average annual salary of $11.634 million a year. That rising tide of a salary is raising all ships.
But in the NHL’s cap system, more for one player means less for another. Krug has been caught in that squeeze most of his career, signing a series of one-year deals.
“I went through it,” Krug said. “I had two great years, full seasons, 50 points, and had a $1.4-million contract because I didn’t have rights. It was the situation with a team that has great structure in salary. Guys are trying to do their best to make an honest living, have fair deals and try to fit within the structure of a team.”
Krug is on the last year of a deal now, but extension talks are on hold as the Bruins deal with the demands of two other defencemen, Carlo and McAvoy.
“I’m not saying I feel disrespected. I understand we have two guys that need to be signed and that can have big effects on our cap situation. Our boss has to deal with that,” Krug said. “I wish there was dialogue. You have to be patient, be a soldier, do your part. I’ve put together a resumé that I’m comfortable with and very happy about.”
Subban says it all comes down to negotiating.
“When I had my (two-year) gap deal, my mom called me and said: ‘P.K. listen, you’re young, you have lots of time. If you’re ready to go play, go play.’ And I went out and played and won the Norris Trophy.”
He was still a restricted free agent when he signed his groundbreaking eight-year deal worth $9 million a year.
“The good players are always going to get paid,” Subban said. “And I think all those guys are great players. I can’t tell them what to do, but I can tell you one thing, 31 teams would take any one of those RFAs. If any of them want to come play in Jersey …”